Let the Turbines Spin by Alice Tepper Marlin

Recently I joined a group on the Viking Ferry to Block Island to see and hear more about that island’s experience with its five offshore “windmills” and the proposed farm of 15 or more, 35 miles over the horizon from Montauk in federal waters. Deepwater Wind’s proposal to provide clean power for Long Island with offshore turbines was chosen by the Long Island Power Authority as the least expensive bid, and it is clearly the environmentally preferable one too.

I was impressed with what I saw and heard, as well as by the scientific articles I have since read. Block Island’s turbines supply 100 percent of the island’s electricity usage. They do so at a substantially lower cost and greater reliability than the diesel-fueled power plants that were shut down as the wind power came online. In addition, Deepwater Wind funded valuable community projects as a way to give back, including a significant contribution to help restore the Southeast Lighthouse.

These windmills succeed where the fossil fuel power sources failed. Our bus driver and residents told us that the diesel-fueled power was unreliable and that their electricity bills varied wildly from year to year, depending on the cost of the fuel. With wind turbines, the power is reliable and the bills are stable, enabling households and businesses to plan better.

On the East Coast, the ocean wind is considerably stronger and more constant than on land, and it blows hardest during peak demand periods. The cost of wind power is declining rapidly, down 50 percent in the last two years, according to a recent Bloomberg analysis of bids in the United Kingdom. This giant leap results in large part from 25 years of commercial offshore wind experience and advances in Europe.

In East Hampton, residents broadly agree with the town’s commitment to generating all our energy from renewable sources by 2030. The South Fork Wind Farm off Montauk has wide support here too.

The local fishing industry has expressed concern about the farm’s impact on fisheries. All of us feel a special affinity for the commercial and recreational fishing community and treasure our glorious fresh local fish. (Block Island has recreational and tourist fishing, but little commercial fishing.) The evidence to date from ongoing scientific studies of the Block Island farm provides reassurance. They find no adverse effect on the hauls there since the modern windmills went online, nor have birds been found killed by collisions. Similarly, the experience in Europe, which has installed nearly 4,000 offshore turbines, is overwhelmingly positive. The turbines act as reefs, attracting and harboring a rich mix of marine life.

For the year and a half of construction, moreover, Deepwater set up a fund to pay Block Island fishermen for any smaller hauls, using a comparison with revenue from the year before. It should do the same here in East Hampton.

Some people have expressed fear of potential harm to marine life aside from the commercial catch. So I called the National Wildlife Federation to seek advice. The federation has a venerated 80-year history of fighting to protect wildlife. With the proper protections in place throughout the development process, the group finds, the risks to marine life from offshore wind power is minimal, especially compared with fossil fuel sources of energy that create air and water pollution, degrade wildlife habitat, and drive climate change.

For marine animals, noise during construction is the most worrisome aspect. Of most concern is the North Atlantic right whale, a critically endangered species that migrates along the Eastern Seaboard and is highly sensitive to noise. The National Wildlife Federation has not seen any evidence of harm to marine life (including larvae, dolphins, and whales) from the low-frequency vibrations of wind turbines once in operation. It is important that construction activities not occur during peak whale migration seasons, and vigilant year-round monitoring should be in place to ensure that the turbine operation and maintenance vessels do not place whales at risk.

In addition, techniques developed and deployed in Europe can muffle the underwater construction noise. Deepwater Wind has a strong track record of environmental protection with the Block Island Wind Farm, where it adjusted its construction schedule to avoid whale migration periods, earning the broad support of environmental advocates in New England, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and Oceana.

Deepwater Wind is eager to develop good relations with residents here. That’s smart because succeeding with the exceedingly complex approval process is worth a lot to Deepwater Wind. So support not only for our fishing community but also for energy-related community projects is a reasonable expense for the company. What should we and our elected officials press for in our participation in stakeholder consultations and negotiations? Three main things: Protect marine life, provide decent jobs, and fund community projects.

Deepwater Wind should maximize the opportunities for local engagement and jobs throughout all stages of the project development process. Rhode Island has added 300 jobs in the construction of the Block Island Wind Farm, many of which are well positioned to become long-term jobs as the offshore wind industry takes off in this country. Let’s get it right and create as many decent local jobs as we can in order to meet New York State’s goal of 2,400 megawatts from offshore wind by 2030.

When it comes to community projects, East Hampton has the first shot at the site where the deeply buried cable could come safely ashore. Ask Deepwater for a generous water and energy-related community benefit package for the town: How about helping the quality of our waterways by restoring critical wetlands and providing grants to homeowners who install state-of-the-art septic tanks that remove nitrates, to add to the rebates the town already offers?

Or how about funding a community solar farm? Or better landscaping for the eyesore substation PSEG put next to the Amagansett railroad station? Or burying those ugly overhead PSEG transmission wires? Deepwater plans for all of its transmission wires to be underground.

Our local politicians have an important role to play both in approving permits and also in assuring that state-of-the-art environmental protections are built in and that residents benefit. The Democratic candidates for town board in Tuesday’s election — Peter Van Scoyoc, Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, and Jeff Bragman — are supportive of the wind farm. Most of us know less about town trustee candidates. It is critical to keep the Democratic majority on the trustees because they have created a constructive dialogue between the concerned commercial fishing community and Deepwater Wind.

The South Fork Wind Farm, if approved, would be the first offshore industrial-size windmill farm in the United States. It would generate 90 megawatts, enough to power 50,000 homes annually on the East End. That’s a huge win for slowing climate change and for energy independence for the nation.

It is the only practical way that East Hampton Town can fulfill its commitment to deriving 100 percent of its power from clean renewable energy. We all need to get the free energy audits available from the Long Island Green Homes Initiative and to install geothermal or solar where practical (we have it on our house). But that alone won’t be enough. I urge all of us to support this clean energy initiative. I urge our government and trustee agencies to grant all the approvals in a timely manner, while seeking Deepwater’s good-will support of local energy-related projects.

The East End needs wind power. It is time to return wind power to its 350-year history in East Hampton. That’s the story science, economics, and common sense tell us. And it’s the story our windmills tell us.


Alice Tepper Marlin was named distinguished fellow at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, where she teaches a course in business and society. She is a board member and president emerita of Social Accountability International and lives part time in Springs.