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Coastal Residents Are Right to Be Worried About Offshore Wind

All along the Eastern Seaboard, concerns about industrial wind turbines continue to grow. There are better ways to generate clean, reliable, less costly power.

Offshore wind turbines
Electricity production from offshore wind is a “cornerstone of the region’s plans to address climate change,” as a Boston Globe writer put it recently. Proponents tout it as a renewable alternative to fossil fuels that can power the grid at a lower cost while reducing carbon emissions, and they often are dismissive of questions or arguments to the contrary.

But in the face of cheerleading from some climate corners, concerns about and opposition to offshore wind continue to grow, not only in Massachusetts but all along the Eastern Seaboard. Last summer the epicenter was Ocean City, N.J., where residents mobilized to block giant industrial wind turbines off their coastline. Protest has since shifted to Barnstable, Mass., where in mid-November more than 700 residents showed up at a community meeting to voice another concern about industrial offshore wind: the prospect of high-voltage power lines running just beneath their shoreline.

Specific local concerns like those have generated fresh attention to larger issues surrounding offshore wind. Grass-roots groups that have formed all along the Atlantic coast aren’t opposed to clean energy. They are apprehensive about expensive, unreliable, weather-dependent sources that offer no environmental benefit and, in fact, may do more harm than good. They’re right to be worried.

A new study from the nonprofit organization CFACT shows that because industrial offshore wind requires backup generation, mining, manufacturing and a massive supply chain infrastructure, it doesn’t reduce global carbon emissions. In fact, over its life cycle, emissions due to industrial offshore wind will increase.

Another environmental concern is how the offshore wind industry disrupts marine life, especially large mammals like the North Atlantic right whale. A new investigative documentary, Thrown to the Wind, suggests that the unprecedented number of right whale deaths in recent years is tied to increased industrial wind vessel traffic with its “surprisingly loud, high-decibel sonar” that can “disorient whales, separate mothers from their calves, and send them into harm’s way, either into boat traffic or poorer feeding grounds.”

Another criticism: the cost. As Travis Fisher of the Cato Institute writes, “Offshore wind is one of the most expensive ways to generate electricity.” And in North Carolina, a John Locke Foundation report found that offshore wind energy facilities cost from $137.00 to $164.39 per megawatt-hour (MWh) to build, while the state’s nuclear and natural gas plants generate power at $21.71 per MWh and $35.83 per MWh, respectively.

But it was the issue of high-voltage power cables running under Barnstable’s scenic beaches that animated opposition in the Cape Cod town of 50,000 — opposition that generated political fallout. Days prior to the community meeting, Paul Cusack, an incumbent town councilor and vocal supporter of the wind project, was beaten 2 to 1 by challenger John Crow, who opposed it. The issue also sparked the formation of a grass-roots group called Save Greater Dowses Beach.

Despite the group’s reasonable, well-cited concerns, its chairwoman, Susanne Conley, says they’ve struggled to be taken seriously and have been accused of peddling misinformation. So the group recently convened its own summit of diverse organizations from Maine to Virginia with shared concerns about offshore industrial wind power along their coastlines.

As those groups and others who have looked with a critical eye at offshore wind know, abundant, reliable power is within our grasp and can be harnessed harmoniously with environmental stewardship if we focus on clean, reliable, least-cost energy sources such as nuclear, natural gas and geothermal. State and local leaders should prioritize reliability and cost to ratepayers ahead of mandating what energy sources people must use. Weather-dependent, intermittent resources like industrial offshore wind destabilize our electric grid, are costly for ratepayers and taxpayers, and are environmentally risky.

We should be grateful to the residents of Barnstable, Ocean City and other communities along the Eastern Seaboard for engaging on the issue of energy policy. Bringing important questions to the table and raising questions about the environmental impact of industrial offshore wind doesn’t make them anti-climate — it makes them informed, engaged Americans who value our democratic process and expect thoughtful handling of a challenging issue.

Amy O. Cooke is a visiting energy fellow at the State Policy Network.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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