January 29, 2019
In his State of the State speech earlier this month, New York governor Andrew Cuomo declared that he was launching “the next phase of the Green New Deal.” New York, Cuomo said, will mandate that the state’s utilities produce 100 percent “carbon-neutral” electricity by 2040. As a step toward that goal, Cuomo announced plans to deploy 9,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2035, a move he touts as “the most aggressive offshore wind goal in U.S. history.”
Cuomo’s move is the latest version of what appears to be a competition among east coast states to see which one can set the most ambitious offshore wind-energy goals. New Jersey has a goal of 3,500 megawatts, Massachusetts plans for 1,600, and Rhode Island is aiming for 1,000. Building offshore wind projects is contentious—the battle over the 468-megawatt Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, which was finally scuttled in 2015, lasted more than a decade—and expensive. That’s why relatively little offshore wind capacity has been built around the world.
Cuomo and his renewable-energy allies are aiming to take their projects offshore because of fierce local upstate opposition to proposed onshore wind projects. But even if Cuomo’s target of 9,000 megawatts of new offshore wind gets built over the next 16 years (and I’m willing to bet that it won’t be), nearly half of that capacity will be needed merely to replace the zero-carbon electricity now being produced by the Indian Point nuclear plant. For years, Cuomo pushed for the premature closure of the 2,069-megawatt nuclear facility in Westchester County. Two years ago, the governor announced that the plant will be permanently shuttered by 2021.
New York State currently has about 1,900 megawatts of installed onshore wind capacity, but a growing rural backlash to the landscape-destroying encroachment of giant turbines is capping the growth of land-based wind generation. Over the past decade or so, about 50 rural New York communities have moved to reject or restrict wind projects. In November, the town of Richland (population 5,500) passed a measure that prohibits installation of large wind turbines within one mile of a residential property. It also imposes strict noise and height limits. Last month, Richland Town Supervisor Dan Krupke told Oswego’s Palladium Times: “We want to keep the integrity of our community here. A lot of people come here because of the extensive natural resources we have and we don’t want that to change.”
One of the longest-running upstate battles concerns a proposed 200-megawatt project called Lighthouse Wind, which would put dozens of turbines on the shores of Lake Ontario. Three upstate counties—Erie, Orleans, and Niagara—as well as the towns of Yates and Somerset are fighting the project. Lighthouse Wind gives an indication of how much onshore capacity the state will need to boost its renewable-energy production. In 2016, the New York Independent System Operator, the nonprofit entity that manages the state’s electric grid, estimated that if the state wanted to obtain 50 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2050, it would need about 3,500 megawatts of new onshore wind capacity. That means that the state will need 17 new projects the size of Lighthouse Wind. Given the opposition to building just one project of that size, it’s difficult to see where the state will put 17 of them.
The same developer pushing Lighthouse Wind, Virginia-based Apex Clean Energy, is also facing fierce resistance on the 109-megawatt Galloo Island facility, which would require putting dozens of turbines on a small island off the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. In its application for a permit, Apex neglected to report that bald eagles have been nesting on the island. The project’s approval is now in jeopardy.
Clifford Schneider, a retired biologist who worked at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation for 34 years, has been leading the fight against the Galloo project. In a phone interview, he told me that Apex knew that eagles had nested on the island but didn’t disclose that information to state regulators. “How do you trust a company that has supplied false and inaccurate statements to the state?” he asked. Schneider, who lives on Wellesley Island in Jefferson County, also said that “Galloo is a terrible place for a wind project. We know eagles use the island. Eagles could be hurt or killed by those wind turbines.”
In a recent letter to state regulators, an Apex lawyer claimed that the company has “not misled the parties or the hearing examiners” about the eagle nest on the island. But that contention may not sway the Department of Public Service, which has said that the chronology of events “raises questions about the timeliness of disclosures and accuracy of statements” submitted by Apex to state regulators.
The friction facing onshore wind projects, as well as the difficulty of building lots of wind capacity offshore, underscores the importance of the two reactors at the Indian Point Energy Center. That facility produces about 16,400 gigawatt-hours of electricity per year—roughly 25 percent of the electricity used in New York City. By comparison, the proposed South Fork Wind Farm—a 90-megawatt project that may be built 35 miles east of Montauk, though it is being fought by local fishermen, including the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association—is expected to produce about 370 gigawatt-hours per year. Thus, merely replacing the energy now being produced from Indian Point will require about 4,000 of the 9,000 megawatts of offshore capacity that Cuomo wants to build. Those numbers suggest that the NYISO was correct when it said in 2016 that “retaining all existing nuclear generators is critical” to the state’s emission-reduction goals.
If Cuomo was serious about cutting New York’s greenhouse-gas emissions, he would be fighting to keep Indian Point open. Instead, he has floated an offshore proposal certain to cost consumers billions of dollars in the form of higher electricity costs. Unanswered questions remain, including where the transmission lines for all that power will come ashore. Add in the fact that New York has some of the most heavily fished and heavily navigated waters on the eastern seaboard, and the 9,000-megawatt proposal looks even more dubious—and even if that portion of offshore capacity somehow gets built, it won’t be nearly enough to meet New York’s electricity needs.
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