N.Y. eyes Great Lakes offshore wind as foes blast ‘assault’

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, July 23, 2020

New York may seek to resurrect a long-abandoned plan to build offshore wind turbines in the Great Lakes, even as critics call for state officials to stop an “assault” of renewable energy projects in rural areas.

In 2009, the state-owned New York Power Authority (NYPA) asked wind developers to pitch projects that would have brought hundreds of turbines to the waters of lakes Erie and Ontario but later scrapped the idea as too expensive compared with onshore projects.

Since then, New York has passed a climate law that requires 70% renewable power by 2030 on the way to 100% by 2040, far outpacing the 30% goal that was in place a decade ago. And in the Atlantic Ocean, an offshore wind industry is already becoming a reality. This week, officials announced intentions to award a major round of contracts for offshore Atlantic turbines, as part of what they called the “nation’s largest” solicitation for renewable power (Energywire, July 22).

Now, clean energy officials and regulatory staff are weighing if the time is ripe for the Great Lakes to serve as another stage for zero-carbon power, as the state races to develop enough capacity to meet climate goals signed into law by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Some residents of rural towns that fringe lakes Erie and Ontario, however, are already concerned about an incoming wave of new onshore wind projects. They say the offshore turbines would disrupt commercial and recreational fishing, harm birds and bats, lower property values, and destroy the region’s bucolic character.

“We are calling on Gov. Cuomo to stop the assault on Upstate New York,” said Pam Atwater, president of the citizen group Save Ontario Shores (SOS), in a release sent to reporters last week. “Scenic rural areas, including Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, are now threatened by massive industrialization due to his renewable energy goals.”

Last month, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and staff at the Department of Public Service (DPS) — which houses the state utility regulator — proposed to study the Great Lakes’ potential to host turbines (Energywire, June 22).

Noting that neighboring states have explored the idea, the two agencies wrote that, “if feasible,” renewable generation in the Great Lakes could “play a key role in New York’s path to a diversified clean energy economy.”

One central question is whether the economics have improved enough over the last decade to make Great Lakes turbines viable. In the near term, wrote the two agencies, projects would be unlikely to compete with onshore wind on a cost basis — though offshore turbines can sometimes prove more valuable to the grid.

If projects went forward, they would add to a flood of renewable developments planned in New York’s upstate counties.

More than four dozen large-scale wind and solar proposals are awaiting permits. Grid officials say that the backlog is a fraction of what will be necessary to meet the 2030 goal. And energy officials also plan to undertake significant transmission build-out to bring rural clean power into the New York City area, which is responsible for much of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Atwater of SOS told E&E News in an interview this week that the state is “just feeling around for what sticks.”

“These goals have been put forward, and there’s all these different ideas being thrown out there. … I think they’re having issue with reaching their goals, and they’re going to give this a try,” she added.

‘Visual attention’

When NYPA issued its first request for Great Lakes wind project proposals over a decade ago, the offshore wind industry was still on training wheels.

Five wind companies submitted ideas to NYPA to build turbines that could generate 120-500 megawatts of power. In contrast, last year, the state inked contracts to buy 800 MW of power from two utility-scale turbine projects off New York’s Atlantic coast.

The possibility for Great Lakes development drew fierce opposition from locals. Several rural counties bordering the lakes passed resolutions warning of impacts to property values, tourism, wildlife and the “unblemished beauty” of lake shorelines.

In 2011, NYPA’s trustees voted not to go forward with any of the proposals, which would have required an annual subsidy of between $60 million to $100 million. The trustees said at the time that they had decided “it would not be fiscally prudent for the Power Authority to commit to the initiative.”

Some citizen groups that formed at the time have gone on to fight a separate pilot proposal in Ohio called Icebreaker Wind. That project won approval from Ohio regulators in May, although the green light came with a caveat: Turbines had to go inactive for six months a year to avoid excessive harms to birds and bats (Energywire, May 22).

If the six-turbine Icebreaker project is completed, said DPS staff in a separate document last month, it’s likely to “renew interest in offshore wind in the Great Lakes” from companies in New York.

In that draft environmental impact statement (EIS), New York DPS and the consultancy Ecology and Environment Inc. looked into the “generic” impacts that could be caused by new renewables in support of the 2030 goal.

Commercial and recreational fishing operations could be displaced, according to the document, and birds could lose habitats, although DPS staff didn’t foresee “population-level impacts” for any species.

The draft EIS did find, however, that developers likely wouldn’t be able to use turbines with a capacity beyond 4 MW, because the machines would have to be transported on ships too large to pass safely through Great Lakes waterways.

The review also found that wind turbines in the lake would almost inevitably be “a major focus of visual attention” from shore — unlike in the Atlantic Ocean, where turbines can be built far enough from shore to be almost invisible to beachgoers.

In Lake Erie, waters get too deep beyond the 10-mile mark to support traditional turbines. In Lake Ontario, that mark occurs at around 2 miles, DPS said. Floating turbine technologies, which are currently being developed abroad, could face damage from moving ice.

Developers close to shore could construct fewer and smaller turbines, wrote the DPS, but visual impacts “may not be entirely unavoidable.”

“If you’re building turbines a mile or two from shore, you’re going to see them,” said Atwater of SOS. “There are a lot of people who are year-round residents with cottages here, or who’ve had property at the lake for generations.

“We don’t have a lot of faith that the state is going to even read public comments,” she said. “They’re just desperate to push projects through.”