Imagine it: You step onto the beach, plant yourself on a blanket, stare into the surf and see a distant skyline of churning windmills, stationed several miles into the Atlantic Ocean.
Would the new view intrigue you, or would it potentially keep you from returning to the Jersey Shore next week, next year or ever again?
Such is the debate raging in several New Jersey beach towns as the shore’s waters are just a few years away from being home to sprawling wind farms hailed as key to fighting climate change.
But in Ocean City and other popular destinations, the threat of climate change is at odds with a perceived threat to tourism.
Increasingly vocal opposition is being raised against the construction of offshore wind farms, as shore property owners worry that turbines on the horizon will spoil the views from the beach and discourage tourists from visiting in the summer.
One group, Save Our Shoreline NJ, launched an online petition calling on Gov. Phil Murphy to reverse course on offshore wind development. That petition has more than 6,000 signees. A Facebook group run by Save Our Shoreline NJ has grown to 4,000 members.
The main project in question is Ocean Wind, a wind farm proposed by the Danish energy company Ørsted and PSEG, though concerns are already being raised about other projects in more nascent stages.
Ocean Wind would include nearly 100 wind turbines, each roughly 900 feet tall, and be built on a plot of sea floor 15 miles southeast of Atlantic City. Ørsted has said it expects Ocean Wind to be operational in 2024. Suzanne Hornick, an Ocean City resident and core committee member of Save Our Shorelines NJ, believes the sight of the turbines undercuts the very reason people visit her town.
“Our beaches are beautiful in New Jersey. They’re truly nature’s gift. The solace that people come here for is such an intrinsic part of who we are,” Hornick said. “No one comes to the beaches because they want to look at wind turbines.”
Hornick described her nightmare scenario to NJ Advance Media that Ocean City, a town that is reliant on money from tourism for just about everything, is eventually destroyed as vacationers and day-trippers take their dollars elsewhere.
“Ocean City is constricted in that our only industry is tourism, and every single business here has something to do with tourism in one way or another,” Hornick said. “And we believe that this project will destroy that.”
But Gabriel Martinez, an Ørsted spokesman, said the fears of ruined views are exaggerated.
“The turbines will be faintly visible on the clearest of days,” Martinez said. “On cloudy days you won’t see them at all.”
A video included in the construction and operations plan submitted to BOEM for Ocean Wind offers a simulation of what the wind farm will look like from shore on a clear, sunny day when operational. The simulation, which begins at 6 a.m. and ends at 8 p.m., shows the turbines obscured by morning haze and bright, mid-day light. The turbines come into sharper focus in the afternoon and evening, as they’re illuminated by the setting sun.
Other visualizations on the Ocean Wind website show the expected view from beaches in Harvey Cedars, Brigantine, Atlantic City, Margate, Ocean City, Avalon, Stone Harbor, Wildwood Crest and Lower Township.
Worries that tourism will take a hit because of wind farms are unfounded, Martinez said. He cited a 2019 study from the University of Rhode Island, which found that AirBnB rentals on Block Island have increased since a nearby wind farm was built in 2016.
Martinez also pointed to a study published last year by the University of Delaware, which found tourist concerns about turbine visibility diminish depending on how far from shore a wind farm is. That same study found evidence that some tourists may be attracted to touring wind farms as a curiosity.
“It’s a good example of how the industry and tourism can coexist,” Martinez said.
Tony Butch, an Evesham resident and avid recreational fishermen who is also part of Save Our Shoreline NJ, said he doubts many people will be interested in touring wind farms, and he argues that’s a one-time attraction.
“If they see them once, they’ll say that’s great and then they’ll go up to a beach in North Jersey where they don’t have to look at these spinning turbines,” Butch said.
Bob Barr, the president of the Ocean City’s city council, said most residents in the community are opposed to Ocean Wind. He said he constantly receives emails that are against the wind farm, and he’s yet to receive one in support.
“If this went on the ballot, it would probably lose 70-30, 80-20,” Barr said.
As for himself, Barr said he’s opposed to Ocean Wind at this time mostly because he has a lot of unanswered questions about the effects on Ocean City. He’s added that he’s unimpressed by what he described as a lack of public education by Ørsted.
“As of right now, today, I am opposed to this,” Barr said. “When I have the information, I can make a better, informed decision.”
Opponents face an uphill fight against the state and federal governments, both of which are relying on offshore wind to deliver massive amounts of clean power as the nation transitions away from fossil fuels. Murphy has pledged to bring 7,500 megawatts of wind power online in New Jersey by 2035, which is a key part of his goal to have the Garden State obtain 100% of its power from clean sources by 2050.
Last month, President Joe Biden announced a major push to build offshore wind farms nationwide. Earlier this week, Biden set a target for the U.S. to slash greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.
Burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas has for decades driven global climate change. Today, New Jersey faces sea level rise at nearly twice the global average.
“You can’t go to the beach from your beach house if it’s underwater,” said Ed Potosnak, the executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. He stressed that embracing offshore wind, solar power and other clean energy sources is critical to keeping climate change in check. He also emphasized the economic benefits New Jersey stands to see by becoming a leader in the budding industry. The Murphy administration, which has committed hundreds of millions to offshore wind ports in South Jersey, has touted the industry as creating thousands of jobs.
Still, Hornick and Butch are both adamant in their belief that offshore wind is the wrong strategy. Hornick said she’d like to see Murphy push for more solar power as aggressively as he’s pushed for offshore wind. Butch said he’d rather see wind turbines be built on land, and an expansion of nuclear power.
For now, the Ocean Wind project has the blessing of New Jersey officials. The project is now seeking federal approval. As part of that process, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is preparing an environmental impact statement that will inform the federal government’s final decision.
BOEM has already said that, based on preliminary work, it expects Ocean Wind to have “infrastructure above the water (that) may affect the visual character that defines historic properties as well as contributes to recreation and tourism.”
A draft of the environmental impact statement is expected in May 2022, and a final version could be published the following year. BOEM’s decision on whether or not to approve Ocean Wind will come after the final statement is released.