New Jersey's offshore wind developers will help fund research on marine life, paying $10,000 per megawatt of capacity to help New Jersey scientists better understand the impacts of wind farms on the Atlantic Ocean's ecosystem.
The state's Research Monitoring Initiative will direct a total of $26 million from the power companies toward the study of wind turbines' impacts on ocean wildlife and commercial fisheries, according to state officials.
"There's a lot of data that still needs to be better understood, both during the planning phases, but then also during construction and operation," New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette told a group of reporters during a virtual meeting.
The money will be distributed to research institutions across New Jersey with cooperation from the Regional Wildlife Science Entity and the Regional Offshore Science Alliance, two independent organizations focused on learning more about offshore wind impacts on the environment.
Earlier this month, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management announced it had completed an environmental impact assessment of a proposal to develop wind turbines on a nearly 800,000-acre portion of ocean off New Jersey and New York, an area called the New York Bite.
New Jersey's Board of Public Utilities has already approved two offshore wind projects off the state's coast: a 1,510-megawatt project, called Atlantic Shores, off of Long Beach Island, and two projects called Ocean Wind 1 and 2, that total 2,200-megawatts, lie off Atlantic City.
The Research Monitoring Initiative is expected to help identify the farms' impacts on vulnerable ocean species, such as the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Construction of wind turbines will increase ocean noise and increase vessel traffic in the area, raising the risk of ship strikes among this small population of whales that migrate along New Jersey's coast, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
This section of the Atlantic Ocean is also the foundation for New Jersey's $1 billion seafood industry, awash in scallops, clams, Atlantic mackerel and blue crabs, among other species.
"When it comes to some of the science and research (of the wind farms' impacts), I think there are a lot of unknown questions out there," said Scot Mackey of the Garden State Seafood Association, an advocacy group for New Jersey's commercial fishers.
Many in the industry worry the large wind farms could disrupt what it called the Cold Pool, a convergence of different ocean temperatures that make the mid-Atlantic's waters fruitful fishing grounds, Mackey said. It is unclear whether the miles of ocean wind turbines will disrupt the Cold Pool and impact fish and the fishermen who rely on them, he said.
The turbines also risk making swaths of the ocean off limits to particular types of fishing, especially varieties that dredge the bottom for scallops or use large nets, such as the types used to catch squid, Mackey said.
"If these projects really impact right whale populations, shouldn't we know that before we start driving monopoles (supports for wind turbines) into the round?" Mackey said. "Or if it's going to impact the Cold Pool, don't we need to make some… design changes to make sure that doesn't happen? We need to answer a lot of these questions before we go in (to development)."
Fishers also worry the wind turbines will make their jobs even more dangerous, said Annie Hawkins, executive director for the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance. Hawkins said wind turbines create interference for many types of radar. Though she has brought the issue up to radar companies and offshore wind companies, as well as to the Coast Guard and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which leases sections of ocean to wind developers, no technical solution has yet been found, she said.
Hawkins said she hoped some of the $26 million earmarked for offshore wind research will be put toward solving that problem.
"Once a project is built, there's not much you can do to change what the impacts are going to be, it's all in the planning," she said. "You can't move the turbines once they're there, if that turns out to be the thing that would help."
Joseph L. Fiordaliso, president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, said the $10,000 per megawatt fee will be distributed to researchers at universities across New Jersey to answer many of these pressing questions.
"We are accumulating all of this research and all of this advice to make a determination as to the direction we want to go, (and) how far we want to go," he said in a virtual meeting with reporters.
LaTourette, of the Department of Environmental Protection, said his agency would continue to look at the impacts of offshore wind development, work to minimize the environmental downsides and close gaps in existing knowledge.
"We have to make sure… that we fully understand the landscape and the aquatic environment. And we do this in every project," he said. "We're looking at huge swaths of the ocean. There are inevitably data gaps."
State officials said the benefits of developing offshore windfarms — slowing or offsetting the impacts of climate change by reducing carbon emissions and shifting to renewable energy — are expected to outweigh the downsides. Left as they are, those carbon emissions are contributing to rising sea level, increasing flooding and heavier rainfall, according to New Jersey scientists.
"We have the opportunity to stop that worsening," LaTourette said. "That is the opportunity before us and we have to do that in a sound way, in a responsible way."
Amanda Oglesby is an Ocean County native who covers Brick, Barnegat and Lacey townships as well as the environment. She has worked for the Press for more than a decade. Reach her at @OglesbyAPP, email@example.com or 732-557-5701.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: NJ offshore wind developers to pay for environmental studies