With plans for more and more wind turbines off New Jersey’s coastline, the advocacy group Clean Ocean Action believes things to be moving too quickly and at far too large a scale. This week, the organization raised concerns about the potential impact on wildlife, especially on dolphins and whales.
“That’s it in a nutshell: Too much, too fast. And too vast,” said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action.
The organization is known for the beach cleanups it has organized since 1985. But the purpose of those efforts has been primarily to gather information to fight plastic pollution in the oceans, she said in an interview Friday.
The efforts include fighting climate change, she said.
That’s the stated motivation for the planned creation of multiple offshore wind farms, which both critics and supporters describe as the start of a new industry in New Jersey.
The recent Clean Ocean Action statement comes in response to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s recent announcement that it would auction off 480,000 acres off New York and New Jersey, described as the New York Bight.
The Feb. 23 auction is of the largest area offered for wind energy at one time, according to the BOEM, with the expectation that a wind farm in the area could power 2 million homes.
The first Ocean Wind project, the furthest along of New Jersey’s planned offshore wind energy projects, is expected to generate enough power from 99 wind turbines off Cape May and Atlantic counties to power a half-million homes, and Ocean Wind 2 is already in the works, rounding that number up to a million homes powered by wind.
Also in New Jersey, Atlantic Shores is set to add hundreds more turbines, and Empire Wind plans hundreds more off New York and New Jersey.
The Ocean Wind proposal has met opposition from some community leaders, with groups like Protect Our Coast NJ and local officials questioning the plan’s impact on coastal communities.
Gov. Phil Murphy has been pushing hard to convert New Jersey to renewable energy, with offshore wind dominating that vision. He has cited the impact of climate change, and the potential for new jobs and economic development with the new industry. Along with the Biden administration, he has argued that climate change presents an existential threat.
Supporters of wind energy say the shore communities will take the hardest hits from rising seas and increasingly powerful storms.
“The Biden-Harris administration has made tackling the climate crisis a centerpiece of our agenda, and offshore wind opportunities like the New York Bight present a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fight climate change and create good-paying, union jobs in the United States,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in announcing the latest auction of offshore acreage. “We are at an inflection point for domestic offshore wind energy development. We must seize this moment – and we must do it together.”
Clean Ocean Action is not opposed to offshore wind, Zipf said. But the group is concerned with the scale and scope of the proposed projects, describing it as the industrialization of the coastline.
Instead, she suggested starting with “pilot scale” projects to see the real impact on marine life. That would still be smaller than the first phase of Ocean Wind, a project of Danish company Ørsted and PSEG. Instead, she cited a far-smaller proposal from Fisherman’s Energy to build six turbines off Atlantic City.
“We supported Fisherman’s Energy as a good pilot-scale project,” Zipf said. The organization of commercial fishing companies worked for more than a decade on the proposal.
Most people now understand the dangers of climate change, she said, and renewable energy has to be part of the future. But not at the expense of the ocean, she argued. She described the ocean as a vital buffer to climate change, absorbing much of the change in temperature and a significant amount of carbon.
She instead pointed to energy conservation and smaller-scale solutions, including increasing the amount of land-based green energy options such as rooftop solar panels.
The buildout along the ocean will have other impacts as well, she said, including bringing more development and population to the coastline.
Marine life is the main concern.
“In a short window, all these proposals are coming very fast. A lot of things are being fast tracked,” she said. “Whales have been migrating through this area for millennia. They haven’t seen a metal forest that they have to navigate around.”
Migratory patterns of birds were taken into consideration in the design of the offshore wind farms, Zipf said, but she is not convinced enough consideration was given to fish and marine mammals.
In addition to the proposed wind energy projects in New Jersey, there are proposals for offshore turbines from New England to Virginia.
Local officials and community groups have raised concerns with the impact on whales and other marine mammals, as well as the visual impact of the turbines and its potential impact on tourism. There have also been concerns about the potential impact on the fishing industry.
For Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, protection of marine life is a major part of why offshore wind is needed.
“The greatest threat to marine life is climate change. We are seeing the temperatures of our oceans rise while marine ecosystems are collapsing,” he said Friday.
He said his group and others want to make sure wind power development is done responsively and carefully. But he said there have not been issues with offshore wind elsewhere.
The League of Conservation Voters joined with other New Jersey environmental organizations late last year to advocate for wind energy, forming the New Jersey Wind Works campaign. It was aimed at countering some of the opposition voices that have been increasingly active at local meetings and on social media.
In previous interviews, Potosnak said much of the opposition stems from fear that the turbines will ruin people’s views. Opposition groups have pointed out that New Jersey Wind Works accepted funding from Ørsted.
“It’s not something you would ask any other group,” he said. “We get funding from a lot of places.”
Most comes from supporters, he said.
“It’s not surprising that they bring it up. It sounds like a boogeyman,” he said.
He maintained that the funding did not influence the organization’s positions.
“The research and science doesn’t support these negative impacts,” he said. “We all care deeply about the ocean. That’s why we think we need to move quickly on wind power.”
As far as Zipf and Clean Ocean Action are concerned, there is just not enough data yet, considering the scale of the proposals along the Eastern Seaboard. She described it as a far different ecosystem than the North Sea, where a significant amount of offshore wind development has taken place.
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