Wind Farm Debate Reaches Fevered Pitch

Consensus elusive as decision time looms
A capacity crowd filled LTV Studios for the East Hampton Town Board and town trustees’ joint hearing on the proposed South Fork Wind Farm. Durell Godfrey

Seize the moment with the urgency our predicament demands, pause and rethink the project, or reject it out of hand. Those were among the suggestions of more than 50 people who addressed a joint hearing of the East Hampton Town Board and the town trustees last Thursday, called to gauge public support for the proposed South Fork Wind Farm. 

Deepwater Wind, a Rhode Island company that built and operates the nation’s first offshore wind farm, a five-turbine installation off Block Island, will soon submit permit applications to multiple agencies including the New York State Public Service Commission for the 15-turbine South Fork Wind Farm, to be situated approximately 35 miles off Montauk. The 90-megawatt installation, proponents say, is an essential component in the town’s goal of achieving 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. Or, according to its opponents, it will have a negligible impact on reducing carbon emissions while damaging or destroying fertile marine habitat and the commercial fishing industry that depends on it. 

The town and trustees are charged with a decision to issue easements — or a lease, in the trustees’ collective view — allowing the wind farm’s transmission cable to come ashore at the end of Beach Lane in Wainscott and make its way underground to the Long Island Power Authority substation on Cove Hollow Road in East Hampton. 

The three-hour joint hearing, held at LTV Studios in Wainscott to accommodate the expected crowd, seemed to leave the five members of the town board and nine trustees drained, as did the cheers and occasional jeers from the audience, as residents and other interested persons made a case for or against the boards’ approval, based on issues ranging from the cost to LIPA ratepayers to the existential crisis several speakers said climate change represents. At one point, members of the two governing bodies sparred over who should be allowed to speak. 

While the South Fork Wind Farm was praised by some and criticized by others, in a sense it was a stand-in for the object of many residents’ scorn: LIPA. Even some proponents of offshore wind said that the wind farm would condemn ­LIPA customers to a business-as-usual relationship with a monopoly. To many speakers, approval of the proposed wind farm represents the tip of the iceberg, a harbinger of hundreds of turbines eventually dotting the Mid-Atlantic and New England coastlines. 

“Is this wind farm really the best way to go clean?” asked Carl Safina, a marine science professor, author, and prominent environmentalist who lives in Amagansett. “Are we simply trading one way of getting our energy from a monopoly for another way of handing the monopoly a literal windfall?” In its request for proposals to address the South Fork’s energy needs, he said, LIPA received but did not select a number of decentralized projects. “Why didn’t they choose them? Because decentralized energy is a major threat to giant utilities. . . . We could have had several clean, decentralized projects going forward simultaneously. I think we’d all be better off in the long run with various configurations of wind, solar, shallow geothermal energy, and other new clean tech applied directly at homes, businesses, and parking lots.” 

But “We are in a planetary emergency,” said Francesca Rheannon, president of the Accabonac Protection Committee and a member of the town’s energy sustainability advisory committee. “I wish that we had the time to not have to make such difficult choices, and sometimes choices in which we have to make some decisions that are not perfect, in order to survive on this planet.” 

The Atlantic cod fishery is beginning to collapse due to warming ocean waters, she said, and the shells of shellfish in the Pacific have thinned as the average acidity of the oceans has increased by some 30 percent. “The most important thing that we can do in this room is overcome our differences and begin to work together despite them.” Like many speakers both for and against the wind farm, she advocated reduced energy consumption, battery storage, and power generation through solar and other means to provide the town bargaining power against LIPA. 

Kevin McAllister of the advocacy group Defend H2O spoke for many when he said that he was “highly conflicted” by the proposed wind farm. “The notion of industrialization of the ocean is unsettling,” he said. “With that said, consider Deepwater Horizon in 2010,” in which an explosion on an offshore rig caused the release of 210 million gallons of oil and another 2 million gallons of surfactants into the Gulf of Mexico. “It is unsettling,” he said, “but I think we have to move away from the oil. . . . Putting aside the economics and the need, I think the environmental impacts are manageable.” 

Tom Bjurlof, who founded a consultancy that worked with American and European companies and governments on regulatory issues in energy, telecoms, and wireless communication, said that while Germany has aggressively developed offshore wind, “carbon reductions in Germany are close to nonexistent.” Because wind is variable and uncontrollable, he said, supplemental electricity plants must accompany renewable-energy installations to provide power, sometimes for days on end, when a wind farm isn’t generating electricity, and LIPA’s legacy fossil-fuel plants are obsolete. “This is why LIPA has an additional half-billion dollars in their budget for the South Fork.” PSEG, the Long Island division of which manages the electricity grid for LIPA, is building “massive fossil plants” in Connecticut and New Jersey, he said, “required by offshore wind farms.” If one is truly interested in carbon reduction, “you need to look into this,” he said. 

Whether or not the South Fork Wind Farm represents a small step back from climate catastrophe, the hearing’s most contentious moment came when a proponent of the wind farm wanted to discuss the pocketbook issue — the rates that individual customers would pay for electricity should LIPA purchase power from Deepwater Wind, as the entities’ contract stipulates. As Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc called on Gordian Raacke, executive director of the advocacy group Renewable Energy Long Island, Rick Drew of the trustees spoke up. “We were told no one from Deepwater Wind was going to be speaking tonight.” 

The supervisor answered that any member of the public was welcome to speak regardless of affiliation, noting that Roger Clayman of the Long Island Federation of Labor had already advocated for the wind farm. “I think it’s highly inappropriate that a paid advocate should be speaking on behalf of a project for our community,” Mr. Drew said. “This is very, very inappropriate.” 

“So you want to suspend this gentleman’s civil rights?” Mr. Van Scoyoc asked, as calls to “Let him speak!” rang out from the audience. 

Mr. Drew persisted. “He’s a paid advocate! He’s paid by PSEG and LIPA. He’s paid by Deepwater Wind.” (Deepwater Wind was among the sponsors of an energy forum organized by Renewable Energy Long Island and donated money enabling the latter to host two boat trips to the Block Island Wind Farm last year, but neither Mr. Raacke nor Renewable Energy Long Island has a contractual relationship with the company.) 

“That’s totally out of order, Rick,” the supervisor said. “I’m very disappointed in you.” He asked that people be respectful of one another despite differences of opinion. 

Though he said nothing during the exchange, Francis Bock, the trustees’ clerk, said on Tuesday that Mr. Drew was “absolutely out of line.” Mr. Raacke, he said, “is a lobbyist who has been pushing for renewable energy for the 10 years I’ve known him. He gets funding from multiple resources, and he’s no different than Bonnie Brady,” executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, “who’s a lobbyist for the fishing industry. To try to disallow him to speak, I thought, was pretty outrageous.” 

Mr. Raacke said that the net cost of LIPA’s entire South Fork plan, which also includes battery storage and its Peak Savers program, would add between .5 and 2 percent to ratepayers’ bills. “For the average customer, LIPA said it would be $1.19 per month,” he said. “Based on publicly available data, we can do our own math. If your bill would be $100 a month, it might go up by a dollar or two. But if the fuel cost for conventional power generation rises over the next 20 years, our electric bills will go up, and unfortunately nobody can tell us how much. With wind power, the cost is known.” 

When it was her turn to speak, Ms. Brady told the board and trustees not to grant access to Deepwater Wind until it completes “a comprehensive fisheries research monitoring and mitigation plan, with compensation, if need be,” with the town’s fisheries advisory committee. Such a plan, she added, “must also be paid for by the applicant,” as Rhode Island’s Coastal Resource Management Council had required when the developer was planning the Block Island Wind Farm. “Don’t let them swindle you,” she said. 

Some of the evening’s most  eloquent remarks came from those bearing the least responsibility for climate change. Sixteen-year-old Emily Berkemeyer, representing the Suffolk Student Climate Action Committee, said that she was at the hearing “because my future depends on it.” The reality of climate change has never been clearer, she said. “Wind power is becoming the United States’ number one renewable energy source in terms of generating capacity, meaning that it is a perfect option for the South Fork’s growing demand for energy, especially during the summer seasons.” 

“I realize it is a concern of many here” that a wind farm will impact the fishing industry, she said. “I ask those in opposition to realize the bigger picture.” Absent a transition to offshore wind power, “the ocean’s temperatures will continue to rise, and many species of fish and marine life will migrate toward northern, cooler waters, dramatically changing the ecosystem and the way of life for many Long Island communities.” 

When the last speakers had delivered their remarks, the town board resolved to keep the record open for written comments through next Thursday. The trustees then moved to keep their record open through June 14.