While Long Island ratepayers would pick up the tab for a wind farm being planned for the waters off Montauk, ratepayers across the state will pay more in the years to come as others are opened.
The plan to turn ocean wind into energy calls for anchoring 15 wind turbines, each one a little taller than the Washington Monument, into the sea floor more than 30 miles off the coast of Montauk, Long Island.
They’ll be far enough out in the Atlantic that they won’t be seen from Long Island’s beaches, so far in fact, that it will require miles and miles of cable to deliver their 90 megawatts of energy – enough to power 50,000 homes – from ocean to land.
And that’s right smack in the middle of where Chris Scola makes his living.
Several days a week, Scola motors his rusting trawler – the Rock-n-Roll III – into the waters off Montauk’s coast, drops a dredging net onto the ocean floor and scoops up hundreds of pounds of scallops.
Once those cables go in, Scola fears his nets will get entangled, making dredging so difficult he’ll need to find a place to fish further offshore with a larger boat, sending himself deeper into debt.
“They say they’re not going to have an impact on the environment but that’s BS,” Scola said one day last week after unloading 300 pounds of scallop into ice as trucks idling nearby waited to transport the day’s catch off to a Brooklyn distributor and dinner tables beyond. “There is no way you can do what they’re planning on doing without impacting things.”
The debate over the state’s energy future has shifted out to sea, off the coast of Montauk, home to the state’s largest commercial fishing port.
There, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push to add some 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind energy to the state’s energy mix by 2030 has created deep uncertainty among those who make their living on the water.
It’s a plan with far-reaching implications not just for a fishing community but New Yorkers in the Hudson Valley and beyond. While Long Island ratepayers would pick up the tab for a wind farm being planned for the waters off Montauk, ratepayers across the state will be paying more as others are opened.
In the coming years, ratepayers across the state will see their electric bills increase by at least 76 cents a month to finance $2.1 billion of offshore wind development in New York. And that’s on top of the roughly $2 per month increase in electric bills needed to finance a multi-billion dollar bailout of three upstate nuclear power plants – two in Oswego County on the shores of Lake Ontario and another near Rochester.
$1 billion boat-to-plate industry at stake
The debate in Montauk has echoes in one that’s been playing out on land in the Hudson Valley over the past two years.
In Dutchess County, towns that cling tightly to their agricultural past were forced to adjust their zoning laws to limit how much land farmers could turn over to out-of-state companies offering thousands of dollars an acre to plunk down fields of solar panels.
In Montauk, the fishing community views offshore wind development as a threat to centuries-old fishing habitats that will be disrupted once wind turbines and cables are laid on the ocean floor.
“This isn’t just about fishermen,” said Bonnie Brady, the executive director of the Montauk-based Long Island Commercial Fishing Association. “This is about the environment. You’re industrializing the ocean floor.”
Brady said developers have failed to properly account for the impact that two processes essential to the Montauk wind farm project will have on fishing habitats. One is the pile driving required to anchor 590-foot tall turbines in the ocean floor and the other is jet plowing, which liquidizes sediment so cable can be dug four to six feet into the ocean floor.
The project’s developer, Deepwater Wind, says the processes might have an initial impact on fishing habitats but over time things will return to normal.
Deepwater’s Aileen Kenney, the company’s vice president for development, said their plan calls for installing cables underground about four to six feet so they won’t disrupt scallop fishing grounds.
“This is an area where are our interests are very much aligned,” Kenney said. “They want us to bury cables so they can continue dredging. And we need to bury the cables because we need to protect the cables from the impact that could occur from dredging.”
Brady says the plan will have a negative impact on the roughly 100 commercial boats registered in Montauk, which pull in between 12 and 15 million pounds of fish from local waters, generating between $15 million and $17 million annually, Brady said. They’re the backbone of what Brady estimates to be a $1 billion boat-to-plate industry.
Several pieces in that vast chain – ice makers, squid sellers and cities and towns in Rhode Island, New Jersey and Massachusetts among them – are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) decision to allow a 127-square mile area, 11 miles off the coast of Long Island to be leased for development as a wind farm with nearly 200 turbines.
That area is south of the wind farm planned for the coast of Montauk, which is known as the South Fork Wind Farm.
The 20-year agreement with Deepwater would be financed through an increase of about $1.19 per month in the bills of Long Island Power Authority ratepayers, according to Deepwater.
Its 90 megawatts of energy will not count toward the state’s 2,400-megawatt offshore wind plan, which state officials say would provide enough power for 1.2 million households in New York City and Long Island.
The state jump-started that effort in July when the New York State Public Service Commission announced that it would procure some 800 megawatts of offshore wind energy over the next two years.
“Our commitment to offshore wind is smarter, cleaner and safer than the frightening federal proposal to allow offshore drilling,” Cuomo said in a letter to federal officials in July. “Instead of trying to revive the fossil fuel industry, I call on you to join us in our efforts to build a 21st century clean energy economy.”
State officials say the offshore wind plan is critical to helping the state achieve its green energy goals. Cuomo wants the state to rely on renewables like wind and solar energy for 50 percent of its energy needs by 2030.
Months of federal, state and local hearings lay ahead for the South Fork Wind Farm. Coastal towns will need to sign off on plans for bringing those energy-carrying cables onto land.
But, if all goes as planned, those 15 turbines could sprout up off the coast by 2022. That would make it just the nation’s second offshore wind farm and the first to serve ratepayers in New York.
Deepwater’s Block Island Wind Farm, with five turbines, opened in December 2016.
Local legend speaks out
Aging trawlers with names like “Sea Capture” and “Kimberly” are wedged into berths along a splintered dock where seagulls have left their mark.
An older man smokes a Camel while making repairs to his boat in the afternoon sun.
Near the entrance there is a bar/restaurant appropriately titled “The Dock” where a sign attached to a tree in the parking lot reads: “No Man-buns anytime.”
It’s a not-so-subtle dig at city dwellers who used to venture no further than the Hamptons but, in recent years, have made their way to Long Island’s eastern edge, Montauk.
It’s the backdrop against which the debate over offshore wind is playing out.
Housing prices in the area are going up and folks who make their living on the water say they feel like they’re being edged out. Some blame their fate on people who live “up- island,” a phrase used not so reverently to refer to those who hold seats of power in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
“What is now going on is the United States is leasing the ocean bottom to make power for people on land with no regards for what it’s going to do, not just to the fishing industry but our environment out in the ocean,” said Anthony Sosinski.
Sosinski, 50, is something of a local legend. He’s worked on fishing boats in Montauk since he was in his teens, when he got his start cutting squid and untangling lines for customers on day-fishing boats.
In 2013, his partner, John Aldridge, went overboard while Sosinski was asleep on their lobster boat, the Anna Mary. Aldridge was rescued, with the help of Sosinski and the U.S. Coast Guard, days later. The story became the subject of an article in The New York Times Magazine and a book titled “A Speck in the Sea; A Story of Survival and Rescue” authored by Aldridge and Sosinski.
Sosinski still fishes for lobster offshore, more than 30 miles off the coast of Montauk.
He thinks the offshore plan is being pushed on the fishing community because, while many express support for renewable energy, few want a wind or solar farm next to where they live or work.
“People don’t want them on land,” Sosinski said. “The fishermen are the easiest ones to push it on because no one sees them out there, but you still want your seafood. You still want your lobster roll.”
Reeling from lobster die off
Like Sosinski, Scola once used to fish for lobster in the Long Island Sound off the coast of Long Island and Connecticut.
But in the late 1990s, a die-off that some link to warmer water, others to pesticide led to a diminished stock of lobster in the Sound.
Lobster harvests that had ranged from 7 to nearly 12 million pounds a year, valued as high as $40 million, dipped to 1.6 million pounds and less than $7 million by 2004, according to a study by the University of Connecticut and the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.
In 1998, some 1,200 commercial lobster licenses had been issued; by 2002 there were fewer than 900.
Scola was among those who went in search of something else.
Scola, 45, grew up in Floral Park on Long Island and fell hard for fishing after his father took him on day trips out of Sheepshead Bay and Freeport.
He arrived in Montauk in 2000 after the lobster die off, then spent eight years fishing the Florida Keys before returning to Montauk in 2008. He bought a boat five years later.
He said the scalloping off Montauk is “super productive” but worries that offshore wind farms will change all that.
“Where the cable goes is directly where I fish so I don’t know what it’s going to do,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s going to move the scallops off. I suspect they’re going to have to lay concrete mats where I fish because despite what they say it’s rocky bottom and I doubt they’ll be able to bury the cable. If they lay the mats there I won’t be able to fish there anymore. There’s no way I’d be able to tow that dredge across concrete mats.”
State officials have been studying the issue over the past two years. They say they have met with the fishing community to identify areas in the ocean where wind farms will have the least possible impact on fishing and other ocean uses off the Long Island coast.
Since 2009, the BOEM has issued a dozen commercial leases for offshore renewable energy developments in federal waters, which gives leaseholders the exclusive right to petition the agency for a development. One is the South Fork Wind Farm and the other is further south off the coast of Jones Beach and the Rockaways.
“The State is committed to working collaboratively with commercial and recreational fishers to understand the areas important for fishing and to identify strategies that will facilitate successful fishing access,” said Kate Muller, a spokeswoman for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. “In addition, any state contract for offshore wind will require coordination with the fishing community and the submission of detailed fishing mitigation plans.”
Kenney said Deepwater’s studies of pre- and post-construction at Block Island have shown little variation in the fish take.
“So far we haven’t seen a change in fishing abundance or the type of fish in that area,” Kenney said.
And, she added, recreational fishers have noted an uptick in fishing around the wind turbines.
Scola questions whether the Block Island Wind Farm is big enough to provide a measure for how things will shake out in Montauk.
“Five little wind turbines on Block Island isn’t a good model for what they want to do,” he said.
“They’re worried about the view but they’re not really worried about the environment,” Scola added. “Put them down in the middle of Long Island Sound, six miles off the beach. It would make more sense where there’s no fishing activity.”
Scola’s not opposed to greener sources of energy. His livelihood depends on a healthy environment. But he thinks money would be better spent installing solar panels on new buildings or helping people put insulation in their homes.
He’s not sure what his next move will be if the plan intrudes on his livelihood.
“I guess I’ll have to go further in debt,” he said. “You get a bigger boat, fish the offshore grounds. And that means I’ll have to change the way I do business, less time with the family, all those other things.”
But after 30 years at sea, he’s unlikely to just walk away.
“It’s a way of life,” he said. “It’s not a job. If you’re fishing just for money, you’re doing the wrong thing, man.”
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