NARRAGANSETT – Oceanographer Jon Hare listed the effects of offshore wind development on the marine environment.
There’s disturbance to the sea floor during installation of turbine platforms. Noise from pile-driving and other activities. Increases in boat traffic. Lighting of the project site. Dredging for electric cables.
The impacts can be far-reaching.
“Putting a pile into the sediment in essence is habitat alteration,” said Hare, a science and research director with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center. “You’re taking relatively smooth, unconsolidated sediments and converting it to hard structure, converting that habitat into something else.”
Although Hare didn’t name Vineyard Wind during a seminar on Wednesday, or talk about the company’s 84-turbine wind farm proposed in waters south of Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts, the potential impacts he detailed speak to some of the reasons why NOAA has raised concerns about the project, which has led to further scrutiny of the application by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
The questions about offshore wind, of course, aren’t limited to the $2.8-billion Vineyard Wind project, which is aiming to come on-line in 2021. The 800-megawatt proposal is the first major offshore wind farm to come before federal regulators following construction of a five-turbine test project off Block Island three years ago, but there are more than a dozen proposals in the works all along the Atlantic Coast and plans for the Great Lakes and the West Coast.
The projects include the 400-megawatt Revolution Wind, a wind farm proposed east of Block Island by Orsted U.S. Offshore Wind and Eversource Energy that would supply power to Rhode Island. The companies are planning other projects in the area that would send electricity to Connecticut and New York’s Long Island.
“This is a Northeast issue, but it’s also a national issue,” Hare said to the audience that filled a lecture hall at the University of Rhode Island’s Bay campus. “We just happen to be at the front of the wave, but much of the rest of the country is also going to see development of offshore wind and then face this challenge of coexistence of renewable energy with sustainable fisheries and protected species.”
The cumulative effects of all those projects is one area that scientists at NOAA are just starting to grapple with. But Hare said there are funding and staff constraints on the amount of work that the agency can do. Although the agency has a team looking at offshore wind, there are no staff working full time on the issues. The amount of effort needed to answer the questions raised by offshore wind development is “overwhelming,” Hare said.
Overwhelming, too, for Al Eagles, a lobsterman from Newport, who questioned why the federal government is allowing projects to go forward when so little is known about their effects.
“To me, everything you said up here was all unknowns,” Eagles said to Hare. “We could be devastating entire species out there. By the time we realize it, it would be too late.”
Lanny Dellinger, also a Newport lobsterman and chair of a board that advises Rhode Island coastal regulators on fishing issues related to offshore wind, said the entire fishing industry is under threat. The Fishermen’s Advisory Board has warned that the tight spacing and orientation of the Vineyard Wind project and others could shut trawlers and other boats out of valuable fishing grounds. If fish populations are harmed by offshore wind development, it could also lead to restricted quotas for fishermen, he warned.
“Our whole community is in danger,” he said.
Dellinger, Eagles and other Rhode Island commercial fishermen have urged developers and government agencies to do baseline studies in areas where offshore wind farms are proposed in order to understand the impacts of construction over the long term.
Hare said that one consequence of development is that it may become more difficult for NOAA scientists to do their studies. The agency’s ships have standing orders not to operate within one mile of any structure, Hare said. Spacing of the turbines for the Vineyard Wind project and Orsted’s South Fork Wind Farm would be less than one mile in places.
That could mean that NOAA will be unable to conduct surveys where offshore wind farms are built.
“That is something we are beginning to take a hard look at,” Hare said.
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