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As US East Coast Ramps Up Offshore Wind Power Projects, Much Remains Unknown

As the U.S. races to build offshore wind power projects that will transform coastlines from Maine to South Carolina, much remains unknown about how the facilities could affect the environment.

Point Pleasant Beach, NJ — As the U.S. races to build offshore wind power projects, transforming coastlines from Maine to South Carolina, much remains unknown about how the facilities could affect the environment.

And that worries some people, particularly those who depend on the sea for their livelihoods.

“We don’t have the science to know what the impact will be,” said Jim Hutchinson, managing editor of The Fisherman magazine in New Jersey. “The attitude has been, ‘Build it and we’ll figure it out.’”

The wind power industry disputes such claims, citing years of studies.

So far, four offshore wind projects have been approved by the federal government for the U.S. East Coast, according to the American Clean Power Association. Vineyard Wind will place 62 turbines about 15 miles (24 kilometers) off Martha’s Vineyard, generating enough electricity to power 400,000 homes.

South Fork Wind will place 12 turbines in the waters off Long Island, New York, about 35 miles (56 kilometers) east of Montauk Point, to power 70,000 homes. And Ocean Wind I, the first of two Orsted projects in New Jersey, will place 98 turbines about 15 miles off Atlantic City and Ocean City, generating power for 500,000 homes. The company is a Danish wind power business that will build two of the three offshore projects approved for New Jersey.

Those projects are in addition to the planned Revolution Wind development, about 15 miles southeast of Point Judith, Rhode Island, with 65 turbines powering nearly 250,000 homes. Numerous others have been proposed, and the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management plans to review at least 16 offshore wind projects by 2025.

“All this is happening so fast,” said Greg Cudnik, a recreational fisherman, bait and tackle shop owner and party boat captain from Ship Bottom, New Jersey. “Science takes time.”

A joint study in March by two federal scientific agencies and the commercial fishing industry documents numerous impacts that offshore wind power projects could have on fish and marine mammals, including noise, vibration, electromagnetic fields and heat transfer that could alter the environment.

Like numerous existing studies, the report pointed out the complexities of how the structures and cables might interact with marine life. For instance, turbines can attract some fish and repel others.

The March study said large underwater platforms are rapidly colonized by smaller, bottom-dwelling marine life, including shellfish and crabs, which in turn attract larger predators like black sea bass. At the same time, cloudy water from turbine operations, noise, vibrations and electromagnetic fields could also make species leave an area.

In most instances, report authors agreed that more studies are needed. Andy Lipsky, who oversees the wind energy team at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, is a co-author. He said the work helps agencies define monitoring required for long-term studies and that more work is required to determine how offshore wind energy changes marine habitats.

Research in other countries also is also nuanced. Some European studies have shown that crabs and lobster are attracted to harder sea bottoms that support wind turbines. Others, including flatfish and whiting, were shown to leave those areas.

And in May, the Biden Administration offered an $850,000 grant to collect more information on the hearing abilities of critically endangered North American right whales, citing “knowledge gaps” in how the animals behave. The request was made “in support of the rapid development of offshore wind,” according to a notice on the Grants.gov website.

Substantial research already exists. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has posted a half-dozen or more studies on its web site every year since 2016; in several instances the studies called for further investigation and analysis.

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