Contention Marks Wind Farm Forum

As opposition persists, one scientist says turbines are ‘quieter than boats or rain’
A panel comprising supporters and opponents of the proposed South Fork Wind Farm debated the project on Saturday at the East Hampton Library. Christopher Walsh

A forum hosted by the East Hampton Group for Good Government drew an overflow crowd to the Baldwin Family Lecture Room at the East Hampton Library on Saturday, where proponents and opponents of Deepwater Wind’s proposed South Fork Wind Farm were unable to agree on pertinent facts and largely unwilling to countenance rival viewpoints. 

As the Rhode Island wind farm developer prepares to apply to multiple federal and state agencies for the 15-turbine wind farm it wants to construct some 35 miles east of Montauk, its officials are hoping the commercial fishing industry, which has hardened in its opposition to the project, does not blow its plans off course. 

Those arguing for the East Hampton Town Board and trustees to delay or deny the granting of required easements for the landing of a transmission cable and its path to a Long Island Power Authority substation were confronted with the fact that local control over the project is limited, despite the wind farm developer’s ongoing solicitation of public opinion. 

Rick Drew, a town trustee and member of its harbor management committee, has grown increasingly frustrated at what he described as Deepwater Wind’s unwillingness to provide adequate information. “I’ve asked for an energy flow diagram from the Deepwater Wind team three or four times,” he said on Saturday, but he has yet to receive one. 

“How do we make a decision when we don’t have a diagram?” he asked. “I’ve asked for cost information and was told it’s not available” due to a nondisclosure agreement between Deepwater Wind and LIPA, Mr. Drew said. Estimated construction costs have apparently ranged from $750 million to $1.5 billion. Deepwater Wind officials have said the projected cost to ratepayers will be only $1.19 per month. 

Mr. Drew referred to Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Outlook 2017 report, which concluded that offshore wind costs would fall by 71 percent by 2040. “In an era of declining wind energy production costs, we’re looking at an expensive project.”  

East Hampton Town’s government and residents, he said, should instead focus on deploying photovoltaic panels to harness solar energy. “We’re lacking a lot of advanced modeling on these subjects. It’s time that we have the open, honest conversation of doing a systems analysis and system design.” 

Thomas Bjurlof, who founded a consultancy specializing in regulatory and technological change and is working on an assessment of transmission grid alternatives for offshore wind in the Northeast, agreed with Mr. Drew, calling for an analysis akin to a 2014 study in Europe in which Greenpeace concluded that a new approach to grids would allow far greater penetration of renewable energy generation. The existing grid, he said, prevents East Hampton from reaching its goal of achieving all of its energy needs from renewable sources; 20 percent from renewables is realistic, he said. 

But Gordian Raacke of East Hampton, who represents Renewable Energy Long Island and has long been a supporter of the South Fork Wind Farm, sounded as frustrated as Mr. Drew in his defense of LIPA and Deepwater Wind’s plan. “It’s not that complicated,” he said, referring to the urgency for new, green electricity generation. The fossil fuel-powered peak generator at the LIPA substation exists, he said, “because there’s peak demand in the summer — they can’t bring in enough power from UpIsland.” Whereas, “the wind farm generates slightly more electricity than we are using on an annual basis here in the Town of East Hampton, as an entire community.” 

Decrying what he called a proliferation of misinformation, Mr. Raacke invited the assembled to refer to LIPA’s 2015 request for proposals to meet the South Fork’s needs. The utility “got 21 proposals, evaluated them, vetted them, screened them for over a year, and made a selection of three projects as part of a package because it was the most cost effective of all the ones received.” The utility consulted with the Towns of East Hampton and Southampton, he said, and the state attorney general and state comptroller reviewed the contract. “Look this up!” he said. 

Jennifer McCann of the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center at the Graduate School of Oceanography, told the gathering that the center is a neutral facilitator of ongoing studies of the nation’s first offshore wind farm, the five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm that Deepwater Wind constructed and operates. Among the conclusions to date, she said, are that the wind farm operates quietly. Underwater, it produces about 100 decibels at a range of 50 meters, she said, contrasting that with fin-whale vocalizations recorded in the area, which she said can exceed 140 decibels at 500 meters. The wind farm is “quieter than boats, quieter than rain,” she said.

Another concern of offshore wind’s opponents is the electromagnetic field that would emanate from transmission cables, and the field’s potential to alter the distribution and migratory path of commercially viable species. According to researchers, “there’s not a significant amount of impact” from the Block Island Wind Farm, Ms. McCann said, “but there is some.” She said more research was needed. “There is a cumulative effect” of placing more turbines in the ocean, Ms. McCann added. “We need to make sure the community is involved in the process and the research.”

Bob DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End, said that although growing demand for electricity may be leveling off, “the peak curve continues to spike. . . . If we’re going to address that, do we want to address that from a fossil-fuel standpoint or a renewable standpoint?” He called for “scrutiny, transparency, and accountability at the end,” and said that the town board was “starting to put the right pressure in the right place,” by asking pointed questions of Deepwater Wind. 

“There is a limited role that this town plays, but it can ignore its potential or can maximize its potential,” he said. Both the town and state want to realize a greater share of their electricity from renewable sources, he said, “and most of us environmental people feel the same.” 

Andrew Brosnan of the Eastern Long Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation agreed. “One thing that I hope we don’t lose sight of is the need for additional power generation here on Long Island, and that we need to look to alternative energy for that power generation.” If rooftop solar can achieve that, “then by all means,” he said. 

Toward the end of the two-hour meeting, Mr. Brosnan confronted what mostly had been left unsaid. Referring to ocean acidification resulting from carbon dioxide emissions, which researchers postulate could greatly harm shellfish and other marine life, he said, “We are concerned about the environment, the continuation of the livelihoods of the people that live on eastern Long Island year  round, who work hard to make a living and need the ocean, need the waters, and need them to be clean. If we continue to rely on fossil fuels, that won’t exist.” 

Asked what approvals Deepwater Wind believes it needs from the trustees and town board, Jennifer Garvey, the company’s Long Island development manager, referred to easements for bringing the transmission cable to the company’s preferred site, the end of Beach Lane in Wainscott, and within town roadways. Should the trustees deny permission to land at the ocean beach, which is under their jurisdiction, the cable could make landfall on state-owned land at Napeague.

 “There wouldn’t be the same opportunity for the town to have a reason to give or not give us a real-estate right,” she said. “It’s not as though the town can’t participate in the process. . . . But you can exert the most control over the way this project comes ashore . . . and the conditions you can impose on it if we land at a local beach