Offshore Wind Energy Gets Double-Barreled Boost

Environmental study and senate bill could ease way for developers building wind-generation projects off NJ coast

Summer’s off to a brisk start for New Jersey’s emerging offshore wind industry.

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee yesterday approved a bill to help offshore wind developers finance their projects, a move that could help the bill clear the full Senate before lawmakers break for summer recess.

On Friday, the state Department of Environmental Protection issued a draft study that found while New Jersey’s coastal waters are teeming with marine mammals, fish and birds, there would be minimal impact from offshore projects located eight to 20 miles off the coast.

The two-year, $7 million study is being touted by environmentalists and clean energy advocates as giving New Jersey an edge over other states in compiling the voluminous data needed to secure assorted permits from state and federal regulatory agencies. It also might shorten the regulatory time frame, which is now expected to take as long as seven years.

“We now have the science and data needed to take the first steps towards making wind energy projects a reality for New Jersey,’’ said DEP Commissioner Bob Martin. “It puts us in the forefront environmentally, while also providing New Jersey with a great economic boost from jobs that will be created by this new green industry.’’

Four developers have announced plans to build offshore wind farms up to 20 miles off the coast. If all four projects move ahead, it could create enough of an impetus to attract additional green jobs to the state by locating wind turbine manufacturing facilities here, according to wind energy proponents.

Study Maps Wide Range of Data

The draft study, performed by Geo-Marine Inc., included 75 miles of coastal area from Seaside Park to North Wildwood and explored 1,360 nautical miles. It tried to assess the abundance, distribution and migratory patterns of birds, fish, marine mammals and sea turtles. It also examined shipping lanes, pipelines, tug and barge transit routes and undersea utility lines, while mapping artificial reefs, commercial and recreational fishing areas, and marine protected areas.

Among its key findings were that bird density dropped off significantly moving farther ashore, beginning about 7.6 miles away from the coast. More than 153 species of bird were spotted, with the northern gannett the most prevalent, accounting for more than half of the observations.

However, only a small percentage of the birds were observed flying in the potential turbine rotor-swept zone, with geese, herons, dabbling ducks, osprey and common loons the most predominant species found there.

Dolphins were the most common of marine mammals observed in the study area, with far fewer sightings of other mammals, such as whales and seals. Also, there were few sightings of sea turtles, with just two species observed and those only during summer months.

The study also said mitigation steps could be used to limit negative impacts on birds and marine mammals, including brief turbine shutdowns during peak migration seasons and techniques to ease the strain of noise on dolphins.

Transitioning to Green Economy

Offshore wind advocates hailed the study as an important step in transforming the state’s economy into one driven by an emphasis on creating green jobs.

“The study details sensitive offshore areas and documents species that call the Jersey Shore home,’’ said Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey. “This data will help inform the development of offshore wind farms in a way that protects New Jersey’s rich coastal ecology.’’

Other conservationists had a different view. Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, said the study confirms “just how rich the ocean off of New Jersey is,’’ with a wide diversity of marine life, such as whales and dolphins to fish and birds. “It makes it very difficult to site these farms without creating an impact.’’

Erich Stephens, a vice president of Offshore MW, which is seeking to build a wind farm 14 miles off of Brigatine, disputed that argument, noting that even with the state study, each of the developers must complete a site-specific one as well. “In general, it said there are no obvious fatal flaws to developing offshore wind projects,’’ Stephens said.

Dan Cohen, president of Fishermen’s Energy of New Jersey, agreed. Cohen said the threat of impacts from offshore wind is negligible, especially when compared with inaction and the impact of global warming on the coast. Fishermen’s Energy is planning to build a pilot wind project offshore three miles near Atlantic City and a second phase about eight miles off the coast.

In legislative action, the budget panel approved a bill (S-2036) that sets up a financial framework for offshore wind developers to recover the costs of building the wind farms, which could run as much as $7 billion by some estimates. The bill would allow developers to earn offshore renewable energy credits for each megawatt of electricity the turbines produce over 20 years, a system modeled somewhat after that created to promote solar installations in New Jersey.

The committee amended the bill to address concerns raised by New Jersey’s Division of Rate Counsel dealing with short time frames given to the state Board of Public Utilities to review offshore wind projects. In addition, the bill was revised to give the agency more latitude to revisit conditions of its project approval, according to Stefanie Brand, director of the division, provided the developers agree.

Still, concerns raised by business industry lobbyists about potential rate spikes resulting from building the wind farms almost caused the panel to hold off action on the bill.They suggested amendments to include price caps to hold down the cost to ratepayers, but those recommendations were rejected by the Christie administration, according to Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the committee.

It appeared the panel would defer voting on the bill until its sponsor, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) arrived and met with members behind closed doors for 15 minutes. Afterward, the committee easily voted to release the bill after Sweeney promised to discuss further amendments to the bill.

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