U.S. Offshore Wind: Problems Aplenty
By Sherri Lange — February 9, 2021
“Offshore bird mortality cannot be studied the same way we study land-based wind sites – by searching the ground for carcasses. The sea is an extremely harsh environment. Birds and bats killed by turbines are likely to become fish food, sink or drift away with the currents.”
—Christine Morabito, “Did Mass Audubon Sell its Soul to the Wind Industry?” The Valley Patriot (June 2015)
Rationalizing Godzilla-sized industrial wind turbines has badly compromised the DC-based environmental movement. To the well-green-heeled, infrastructure-intensive wind turbines and solar arrays have to ecologically work. Or else the world is stuck with oil, natural gas, coal, not to mention nuclear, biomass, and hydro. Or else the time and emotions invested in the issue go to waste.
Imaging is the grand task of the eco-renewable lobby. Photoshop to green the scene. Mute the noise. Don’t picture the (otherwise unnecessary) transmission lines. No birds either. Just make wind turbines look as natural as the breeze.
Economically, ratepayers and taxpayers lose. Industrial wind requires long-term price-insensitive contracts, as well as endless DOE research grants, the perennially extended 2.4 cent/kWh federal tax credit, and local and state tax abatement. It’s hard making the uneconomic economic.
The other victims are the locals living in view and sound of wind turbines. Many have to be bribed to become neutral or supportive of such rural industrialization.
In the Crosshairs
Facing constraints onshore, the push is for massive offshore wind installations. “Take all of these offshore plans with a large grain of sea salt,” Robert Bryce warns.
The history of offshore wind in domestic waters is replete with canceled plans – yes, Cape Wind, I’m talking about you – cost overruns, cabling problems, and permit delays. Furthermore, offshore wind continues to be one of the most expensive forms of electricity generation. That high-priced juice will cost ratepayers untold billions of dollars over the coming years. That means higher-cost electricity for low- and middle-income consumers. The impact will be particularly hard in northeastern states like New York and in New England, where consumers already endure some of the highest electricity prices in the country.
The cheat word in the local wind wars is mitigation. This fig leaf is at its worst with offshore wind projects, all but one delayed in the face of bad economics and environmental controversies.
Mitigation involves cover up and denial. Mitigation can include softening the blows of brutal harm to landscapes and habitats by offering alternative spaces, perhaps a breeding ground. Or it can involve other simplistic ideas, such as painting the tips of turbine blades purple. Or it can involve money, sometimes lots of it, to count dead birds and bats.
Offers of alternative protection, say of a bat species, threatened or at risk or endangered, could end up in a negotiation for a fee for “mitigation,” or more research, that involves calculating numbers of losses, suggesting how the developer can buy into some sort of agreement with a Department, Agency, or Ministry, even a bird protection group that finds itself dealing with actual mortality numbers.
With this in mind, here is an update on offshore wind projects in the U.S.
Block Island (RI) Offline
America’s lone completed offshore wind project, 30-MW Block-Island project off the coast of Rhode Island, now four years old, went offline last year for costly seabed cable repairs.
Was this to be expected? “High-voltage lines—be buried at sea to carry power from the burgeoning offshore-wind sector and then inject it into the onshore grid—represent the most complicated, and as yet uncertain, aspect of an industry poised to boom,” E&E News explained. “From grid congestion to technical troubles, the offshore wind’s transmission challenge is the focus of growing attention as the industry advances.”
This setback further slows the Northeast offshore wind rush. Monopoly utilities blend in expensive offshore wind with lower-cost, flexible power. For captive consumers, they have no choice but to pay.
Icebreaker (Lake Erie)
The developers of Icebreaker, a proposed six-turbine project, eight miles off shore from Cleveland, pretend that their turbine area is “not heavily trafficked” by birds and bats. But Lake Erie is dense with criss-crossings and feeding/nesting areas and is one of the most abundant migration routes in the world.
As I summarized elsewhere, this proposal, a decade in the making, remains mired in controversy, with lawsuits and with the Ohio Power Siting Board (OPSB) placing numerous conditions for the pilot project to proceed.
Cape Wind (Nantucket Sound)
This project has been abandoned, but its sordid history is important for evaluating the current remake (Vineyard Wind, see below).
Massachusetts Audubon Society (MAS), an organization “Protecting the Nature of Massachusetts,” reversed its opposition to the proposed 130-turbine Cape Wind project off Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard back in 2006. Based on climate alarmism and opposed to virtually every other form of energy, MAS’s “Adaptive Management Plan” had caveats
Our support for the Cape Wind Energy Project is contingent upon these gaps being addressed with a finding of no ecologically significant threat. These gaps are:
• Nighttime distribution and behavior of hundreds of thousands of Long-tailed Ducks in and around Horseshoe Shoal;
• Movement of endangered Roseate Terns and threatened Piping Plovers during the late-summer to early-fall migration; and
• Abundance and distribution of migrating songbirds. Work on filling some of these gaps has begun or will begin shortly. We also propose adoption of an Adaptive Management Plan that includes a comprehensive and rigorous three-year monitoring program beginning at the construction phase; mitigation measures in the event that the project results in unanticipated ecologically significant adverse impacts; compensation for the use of public lands and waters; and enforceable procedures for decommissioning any abandoned turbines.
At the time, activist Barbara Durkin chronicled the huge conflict-of-interest between the environmental bird group and Cape Wind developers.
Mass Audubon appears to have a multi-million-dollar financial interest in the outcome of the Cape Wind permit application process as a self-appointed permit reviewing agency. If Cape Wind is constructed, they are in effect positioned to profit by counting bird carcasses, “monitoring,” while attempting to “solve” this problem; the industry term for this is “mitigation.” (Needless to say, counting dead carcasses is not a “solution.”)
Christine Morabito documented the unholy lead-up to the agreement. In February 2005, MAS noted that the Cape Wind Project was “laden with inconsistencies.” They argued heartily that a collision-risk analysis with a more thorough and ethical framework be completed.
February, 2005: “They stressed the need to assess impacts on endangered roseate terns, threatened piping plovers, migrating songbirds, federally endangered sea turtles, protected marine mammals and federally regulated fish populations.” Of high significance was their estimate of this major migration route: that between 2,300 and 6,600 birds would be killed per year, and “untold” millions of bats.
By March 2006, MAS had incoherently changed messaging: indicating that it had concluded now that the project would NOT pose a threat to avian species. They would not calculate what an “acceptable” number of deaths would constitute.
In a final statement, August 2013, Audubon claimed to have conducted intensive studies, including a visit to Denmark’s offshore wind farms (Nysted and Horns Rev) during the 2005 spring bird migration. However, MAS previously conceded “There are few offshore wind farms worldwide, and none of comparable size, from which to gauge the potential impacts of this project on birds and other wildlife.” Audubon announced, “To date, no collision mortality has been reported at the Danish offshore wind farms, although measuring mortality in the offshore environment is difficult.”
Difficult indeed – if not impossible – a fact confirmed by Vernon Lang, assistant supervisor of United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s New England Field Office, who called for more impact studies of Cape Wind. Promptly thereafter, he was reassigned.
VINEYARD WIND Remake (Nantucket Sound)
As noted in our Master Resource piece a year ago, Cape Wind was eventually defeated and its federal lease withdrawn. Another Nantucket proposal, 84-turbine, 800-MW Vineyard Wind, was withdrawn from the permitting process several months ago.
But with Biden’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the permitting game is back on. “Vineyard Wind still expects to reach financial close in the second half of 2021 and to begin delivering clean energy to Massachusetts in 2023,” a recent company announcement stated.
As with Cape Wind, Vineyard Wind is out to sidetrack true environmental protections. Enter the Community Foundation for Nantucket, which has accepted funding from Vineyard Wind to placate critics. But one doubter, Mary Chalke of Nantucket Residents Against Turbines, argues that the the area is a national landmark and disrupts the feeding/breeding ground for the North Atlantic Right Whale. She characterizes the entire proposal as “devastating.”
Joanne Levesque questions the “offer” to Town Officials, Select Board Members, and environmental groups of $34.4 million over 25 years. This trade for wildlife impacts, fishing rights, and tourism comes from national taxpayers and local ratepayers
Says Levesque: “Developers will say ANYTHING to gain permitting.”
Here is just one example of their subterfuge. Not only do they gain permits based on serious errors, omissions, and misrepresentations of fact—ONCE a project is permitted, they use their professional skills to subvert an honest analysis of the operation’s impacts upon a community. As such it is my opinion that they act in violation of ethical standards as a result of grossly misrepresenting what they are “selling” to these local boards.
To some, this is grand corruption.
Conservationist and activist Dr. Helen Schwiesow Parker catalogues (personal communication) the flagrant dishonesty of offshore wind developers, “rapacious in their intent to occupy east coast waters of immeasurable historic and natural importance: Exaggerated promises of imaginary jobs, blithely dismissing impacts on tourism and offshore fisheries, shamelessly empty agreements to protect treasured species, all are part of the playbook.”
But she is heartened by the present moment, believing that local boards can indeed stand before the courts like David confronting a greed-drunk and unprincipled Goliath, and put an end to the Big Wind Charade once and for all.
This tenacity is mirrored in Audra Parker of the Cape Wind success.
“The alliance’s work will continue to be important to be sure we don’t abuse the asset that is Nantucket Sound.”
The tenacity and “dogged determination” of the alliance’s leadership, including Parker and others, has been a great part of their success to date, Smith said.
Adversaries to the proposed takeover of the U.S East Coast by industrial wind point to these ongoing problems in Europe:
- Design errors, including with cabling
- Worker danger
- Technology failures
- Collision casualties, as flying creatures mistake the structures as resting places on long migratory paths
- Damaging to sub surface organisms of all kinds: ongoing not just during construction, when dB can reach 110 or more
- Massive subsidies that are never really attached to real production and meaningful electrical output or the complexities of grid-balancing
- Expense overruns, including with maintenance
Much is yet to come, but suffice it to say, offshore wind proposals, problematic economically, can and should die a natural death from environmental concerns.
[Originally published at Master Resource.]