Now that President Biden’s administration has thrown its support behind a wind farm off the coast of New Jersey – and similar ones from Massachusetts to North Carolina – it’s clear turbines twice the size of the Statue of Liberty are about to rise in the Atlantic at a pace we never have seen.
Earlier this spring, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced the formal environmental review of Ocean Wind, the project on the Jersey Shore. It was a clear signal the project is moving forward. The agency also plans to review 13 others up and down the East Coast by 2025, pushing Biden’s climate change agenda forward.
In New Jersey, wind power now likely means more than $1 billion of investment, thousands of jobs, and clean energy to power over 500,000 homes.
But that’s not all.
Ocean Wind, according to those closely following the project, is headed for a series of turf wars, loud debates and protracted legal battles, even before the first turbine is sited off the coast of southern New Jersey. That’s not necessarily unusual for a project this size, but even supporters and opponents of the proposed wind farm at times disagree among themselves on how to move forward.
Environmentalists, commercial fishermen, recreational boaters, labor unions, homeowners, boardwalk businesses, NIMBYs and ratepayer advocates are all circling Orsted, the Dutch wind power company behind what could be one of the largest wind farms in North America. Local, state and federal officials are also starting to feel the heat.
Just about everyone involved, including David Hardy, CEO of Orsted US, worries the project could devolve into chaos.
“There are a lot and lot of growing pains ahead of us,” he said, modestly describing the potential dissent. “We are not doing this in an undisciplined way.”
Before anything else, it’s important to note Hardy has said Orsted plans to space the turbines far enough apart for recreational vessels and fishing boats to maneuver among them. He said the company also voluntarily agreed to build the turbines 15 miles offshore, even though its federal lease allows them within 10 miles of shore. (Orsted has an interesting visual representation how the turbines would look from the shoreline. You can see it here.)
“They are pretty far offshore. They’re not looming over your beaches,” Hardy said.
Still, Ocean Wind should expect increasing obstacles. Already, critics are claiming the federal and state review is a sham and New Jersey’s wind farm is a done deal.
“There are lot of users currently in the ocean space and in the coastal communities who are not welcoming to this technology,” said Kris Ohleth, executive director of Special Initiative On Offshore Wind, a non-profit think tank.
Some groups are lawyering up, preparing for court fights, she said. It doesn’t help so many opponents deeply distrust the federal and state governments. They fear officials are out to con, deceive or harm them.
“There is not necessarily a process by which conflicts can be resolved,” Ohleth said. “I see years of litigation ahead for each project if there isn’t a more coordinated and collaborative view of what the use of the ocean looks like.”
The plan has power lines from the turbines coming ashore in Ocean City and Island Beach State Park. The lines then would connect to the electrical grid through currently decommissioned power plants in South Jersey.
Orsted has promised to do the bulk of the beach work offseason – little solace to community groups in Ocean City.
The Biden administration has promised to provide federal loans and accelerate permitting for wind farms, which experts say is the best way to reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and fight climate change.
So far, Biden hasn’t appointed a referee –– let’s call it a Wind Czar –– to mediate the clash of conflicting interests up and down the Atlantic coast. Officials in his administration were urged in a March conference call with offshore industry leaders and four cabinet secretaries that the federal government must play the role of intermediary between wind energy supporters and foes, especially the commercial fishing industry, the most vocal opponent.
“This is something we’ve been talking about for a few months,” Hardy said. “It is inefficient and creates a lot of risk for us and the fisherman. … There is an opportunity for the federal government to step up and create a national framework.”
Scot Mackey, of the Garden State Seafood Association, said at a recent virtual public hearing that the fishing community’s input was not incorporated into final plans for the project. He said the turbines may disrupt marine life so much that recreational and commercial fishermen will stay away.
Kevin Wark, a Jersey Shore commercial fisherman and member of the Offshore Science Association, said “everyone is fighting” and he has been left in a position where, “essentially, I’m refereeing and it’s not pretty.
“We’re just trying to make sure there is a fishing industry after it’s all said and done. The reality of the situation is we try to steer things in a positive direction.”
The U.S. offshore wind industry has lagged its European counterparts and the U.S. onshore industry, a business that has grown rapidly during the pandemic. The White House said meeting its offshore wind goals would trigger in excess of $12 billion a year in investment, lead to more than 44,000 jobs in the offshore wind sector by 2030, and support 33,000 other roles connected to the industry.
For his part, Hardy said Orsted, which sold a 25% stake in the project to PSE&G, still hopes to have the New Jersey farm running by 2025. Already, it has started construction of a turbine manufacturing facility at the Port of Paulsboro Marine Terminal in Gloucester County and committed to build its national technical center in downtown Newark.
“Orsted wants to build a thriving community here. We really walk the walk,” Hardy said. “We’re really committed to doing this the right way.”
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