A dozen giant wind turbines are on track to start spinning roughly 50 miles offshore from some of the country’s ritziest beach towns. That is unless last-ditch efforts by local residents can stop one of the country’s first offshore wind projects.
South Fork Wind will power 70,000 homes around East Hampton, N.Y., when it starts generating electricity next year. Construction began recently after a six-year approval process from federal, state and local governments.
One of the few remaining snags could be a group of residents of the exclusive hamlet of Wainscott who don’t want the cable carrying power from the windmills to be buried under a street that runs to the beach. Even though digging has begun, they are still waging legal battles on several fronts that could delay construction or further complicate the project.
Local opposition to renewable-energy projects from large-scale solar farms to windmills on land and sea is delaying and sometimes halting the shift away from fossil fuels.
More than 200 wind and solar projects face local opposition, according to Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, which backs green projects through a pro bono partnership with the law firm Arnold & Porter. That is up from roughly 165 in September. The Sabin Center worked for a group of residents who argued in favor of South Fork.
The rising opposition could be due to the rising number of projects. Analysts say it is too early to tell whether renewable-energy projects face the same level of opposition as oil-and-gas drilling, pipelines and electricity transmission lines.
Shifting to renewable energy has gained increased urgency as evidence of climate change mounts. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has driven up prices of oil and gas, making renewables more attractive while highlighting the risks of being dependent on foreign sources of energy.
The opposition to the Hamptons project is centered on Beach Lane in Wainscott, a hamlet of about 650 people where the average home sells for more than $3 million. Beach Lane turns into sand when it hits Wainscott Beach, which stretches for miles along the Atlantic Ocean in either direction.
The windmills won’t be visible from there, nor will the cable carrying the electricity they generate. The power line will make landfall on Wainscott Beach and run underneath Beach Lane. Construction is planned primarily for cooler months, when many houses are unoccupied, and the cable will be undetectable from above ground, the project’s owners say.
Opponents say they support the project and clean power but feel the cable’s installation will disrupt residential life and contaminate the area. Other routes would be less intrusive, they argue.
“The impact to us is significant,” said Pam Mahoney, a Realtor who lives on Beach Lane with her husband, Mike, in a roughly 1,400-square-foot home on an acre of land that is their primary residence. The trench for the cable is starting to be dug near their home. “There is a huge rush to do everything.”
The Mahoneys have filed a lawsuit against federal agencies alleging they didn’t adequately assess environmental and pollution risks, including groundwater contamination. A group of project opponents, Citizens for the Preservation of Wainscott, has filed several local and state petitions and lawsuits against the operators and local government. Judges and policy makers have dismissed their cases.
“A toxic brew of political vanity, corporate indifference and environmental ‘cancel culture’” is pushing forward the project that could contaminate the area, a spokesman for the citizens group said. He said the group is appealing various rulings against it.
The companies operating the project—Danish offshore wind power company Ørsted AS and Connecticut-based Eversource Energy—and the supervisor of the town of East Hampton say the current cable route is safe and the least disruptive, and the permitting process was appropriate.
U.S. developers are expected to add 167 gigawatts of solar and wind projects, including 8.6 gigawatts of offshore wind, in the next five years, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights. That would increase the capacity of those renewables by more than 70%.
Offshore wind would see exponential growth under the Biden administration’s plans but is bumping into opposition despite its small size in the U.S. Just seven turbines were installed as of 2021, compared with 5,852 in Europe and 5,448 in China, according to the Global Wind Energy Council.
Federal, state and local governments have reduced the time needed for approval, but local opposition remains a threat. “As the other barriers start to decrease, this could really show up as the biggest barrier,” said Leah Stokes, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies the topic.
Residents say they have legitimate concerns. Locals in eastern Washington state have fought wind and solar farms that would cover hundreds of acres and deliver power largely to urban areas such as Seattle. The projects mar vistas and hurt tourism and wildlife in the state’s shrub-steppe habitat and wine country, said state Republican Rep. Mark Klicker.
The height and blinking lights of wind projects can ruin the landscape, he said. “They dwarf the Seattle Space Needle,” he said.
In Iowa, some farmers are opposing the construction of pipelines to carry carbon dioxide captured in the making of biofuels, which are booming in the farm state. Capturing carbon and storing it underground is a key climate priority. The effort received $12.1 billion from the federal infrastructure bill that passed last year.
Jessica Wiskus, a seventh-generation Iowa landowner, said her concerns include environmental damage and the potential for pipeline accidents near homes and schools. The carbon is often used by the fossil-fuel industry to boost the output of wells, making it “completely different from projects like wind and solar,” she said. A Texas-based company notified her it has drawn a potential route through her land.
In the Hamptons, more lawsuits are coming, including one claiming the turbines could harm the endangered North Atlantic right whale. “That area is a breeding ground,” said Si Kinsella, a resident who has fought the project.
More offshore wind projects are planned. Federal auctions for nearly half a million acres for wind farms off the coast of New York and New Jersey raised record amounts in February.
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