On a windy summer night in Ocean City, Suzanne Hornick stood in the sand below the boardwalk’s Music Pier gazing out at the Atlantic Ocean.
“I used to dive off this,” she said, “Into what was 10 feet of water, at least I hope it was 10 feet. Yeah, I was the bad girl.”
Hornick grew up here, married, had her kids, and she loves living in Ocean City.
“We have a parade once a month,” she said, “and if we can’t find a reason, we’ll make one up, like the Doo Dah Parade. Come for that. That’s fun. It’s to celebrate the end of tax season, and it’s also the largest basset hound parade in the country. People come from all over the country to march their basset hound down the Asbury Avenue, usually in costume.”
In a way, Hornick still is the bad girl. She’s gotten kicked out of city council meetings while pushing Ocean City officials to act on flooding from sea level rise. She started a group called Ocean City Flooding, which uses citizen science to track local climate change impact and pushes for infrastructure to prevent flooding. She knows burning fossil fuels is an existential threat to her life on one of New Jersey’s thin, barrier reef islands – hemmed in on one side by an ever-encroaching ocean and on the other by a tidal back bay where development has crept over wetlands, nature’s flood plain. And yet, she’s now fighting a key component of President Joe Biden’s plan to tackle climate change – massive offshore wind farms.
“When I first heard about it, in my imagination, it was just going to be one or two, similar to what they have off Block Island [in Rhode Island],” Hornick said. “And I thought, well, if it’s good for the earth and it’s going to be good for the environment, then we should think about doing it. And then I started to research it, and I found out that it’s not what it’s promised. And the magnitude of the project is such that I believe it will devastate our coastline.”
The Biden administration has opened up the East Coast to massive commercial offshore wind farms, stretching from Massachusetts down to North Carolina, with a goal of developing 30,000 megawatts of wind power nationwide by 2030. New Jersey has staked its claim to lead the nation in this push to tackle climate change. Gov. Phil Murphy has committed the state to developing 7,500 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035. It’s part of the state’s overall goal of 100% clean energy by 2050.
At least one wind farm could be visible from Ocean City. A planned high-voltage electric cable will carry the wind energy beneath the island to a substation at the former B.L. England coal power plant in Upper Township.
Current plans include three lease areas in New Jersey, encompassing 344,000 acres with a grid of several hundred turbines that could power 1.2 million homes and make the state the largest leasing area yet.
But that’s just the beginning.
The federal Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management announced this year an additional eight leases to be auctioned off farther out to sea between Long Island and Cape May. It’s a multimillion-dollar investment that a recent study says will result in more than $100 billion in new business along a supply chain.
To Hornick, it’s an untested boondoggle, one that she said could damage a fragile ecosystem, affect fertile fishing grounds, kill off endangered species and drive away tourists who want to see a horizon free of human intervention and industry. She said it will permanently alter the ocean as she knows and loves it.
“It’s like a painting – if God could paint, that would be what he would paint,” she said. “And the stars come out, and it’s just so pretty, and to have that lit up like an industrial park is going to be a nightmare. It’ll change everything and not in a good way, for no good reason.”
The poles, or monopoles driven into the seabed will be 35 feet in diameter, rising 80 stories tall, with 350-foot blades. They will be surrounded by hard structures that had never before existed off the Jersey coast. Hornick worries the construction noise and vibrations will damage marine mammals like dolphins, who depend on echolocation to navigate. And the wind farms could jeopardize the survival of the endangered Atlantic right whale; fewer than 400 are alive today. The Jersey Shore’s fisheries are also worried the wind farms would limit fishing areas and could permanently reduce their catch.
Hornick and her friend, Susan Cox, also involved in tackling climate-related floods on the island, are not convinced the wind farms will do anything to curb carbon emissions. Building a wind farm itself is a massive undertaking, they said.
“If you’re going to use all those fossil fuels,” said Cox, “all the ships, all the trucks, all the oil in manufacturing, the helicopters, the boats that are going to be out there watching them, making sure they’re not leaking, putting out fires if they happen. How is that green? Somebody needs to define what green is because in this particular case, it is not green.”
Orsted, the Danish company building and operating the wind farms known as Ocean Wind 1 and Ocean Wind 2 in conjunction with PSEG, says visibility from the beach will be minimal. Orsted’s New Jersey lobbyist, Maddie Urbish, said the company adjusted its plans based on feedback and moved the turbines 15 miles offshore. As for the lights, the company says they will be seen from five miles away – and therefore not readily visible from the beach because of distance and the natural curvature of the earth.
“We understand this is a new industry,” said Urbish, “and change can be really alarming, especially when it’s hard to grasp what it’s actually going to look and feel like because it is new. We do understand people don’t like to have their sightlines disturbed in any way, including lights. I think that for safety purposes, this is absolutely necessary and it will be really minimal.”
Still, residents like Hornick and Cox are distrustful of the industry as well as New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy who spent more than two decades at Goldman Sachs. Oil and gas companies are lining up behind wind energy and winning lease auctions. Orsted used to be Danish Oil and Gas, before it shifted to wind. Royal Dutch Shell plans to produce 1,510 megawatts of offshore wind with its project Atlantic Shores, off the coast at Atlantic City and Barnegat Light. These are some of the same companies that drove and continue to drive global warming. Hornick said the only “green” aspect to the project is the money to be made by large corporations and investors.
Rebecca Barthelmie, a professor at Cornell University’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, says her 30 years of experience with the wind industry in the North Sea gives her confidence this development will be done with minimal impact. Barthelmie began her research at Denmark’s Vindeby offshore wind farm, the first to be built in 1991.
“I think if they could see what I have seen, because I’ve been to lots of offshore wind farms, I think they would see that this is a good solution,” said Barthelmie. “This is a good way forward. Of course we’re changing things, but we’re not changing things irredeemably. With climate change, we are making those changes. We are losing songbirds, we are losing habitats. We’re all going to have to contend with extremes in weather. That’s reality.”
Barthelmie said time is running out for cutting carbon emissions, and options are limited.
Both offshore and onshore wind development should be fast-tracked, Barthelmie said. A comparison of the cost of each source of megawatt hour of electricity shows wind is the best bang for your buck, she said: better than coal, nuclear, or solar. And despite the need to use fossil fuels to build the wind farms, she said, research clearly proves the carbon footprint is much smaller than coal, or oil, or gas. Her recent study published in the journal Climate shows if global wind energy capacity increases 8-to-11 times the current level by 2050, warming will be reduced 0.3 to 0.8 degrees Celsius by 2100.
“Wind energy on its own can reduce the temperature increase,” said Barthelmie. “So it will make a difference, it does make a difference.”
Hornick said she’s not against onshore wind, and she says other forms of alternative energy like solar and geothermal should be pursued. Nuclear, which has recently gained more support from some environmentalists, should also be explored, she said.
Meanwhile, New Jersey lawmakers have stripped the ability of communities such as Ocean City to block aspects of the project like underground cables. That gives locals few options to fight the plan, putting all permits in the hands of state and federal regulators.
Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian said he supports clean energy, but wants all the residents’ concerns met before construction begins. And he’s asked Orsted to fund a flood mitigation project.
The company plans to finish construction on its first project and send out wind-generated electricity by 2024.