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Pat Sziber

Wind Energy: Promise and Peril
Pat Sziber

As we face the reality of the finite nature of fossil fuels and reach for ways to mitigate their negative environmental effects, alternative energy sources have come to the forefront. A recent article in The New York Times about the Jersey-Atlantic Wind Farm in Atlantic City which features 380-foot-high turbines at the city’s water treatment plant (Trying to Catch the Wind, 12/25/05) brought an already-vigorous discussion of coastal wind energy for NJ into the mainstream.

In December 2004, Acting Governor Codey signed an executive order creating the Blue Ribbon Panel on Development of Wind Turbine Facilities in Coastal Waters. That panel’s interim report was published in November and can be viewed at www.njwindpanel.org. The report provides an overview of energy in NJ—its sources, current and projected demand, options for the future and potential impacts of coastal wind farms. It’s a 4.2 Mb download, but worth the wait if you want a thorough analysis of NJ’s energy profile.

In May 2004, New Jersey Audubon, Princeton University’s Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy, NJ Public Interest Research Group and the Princeton Environmental Institute sponsored a daylong workshop, "Wind Energy and Wildlife: The Good, the Bad…the Possible." The workshop presenters included experts in avian science, marine science, wind energy technology and environmental science.

Both the report and the workshop make it very clear that off-shore wind energy production, while offering enormous promise, must be approached with extreme caution. The NJ coast is a critical point along the Atlantic Flyway, one of the world’s great bird migration routes. The shoreline also is our state’s greatest tourist attraction, an area of tremendous economic importance. Eco-tourism is no small part of that. Sport and commercial fishing must also be considered. It is not going to be easy to find the balance between the environmental benefits and perils of wind farms.

NJ is in an odd situation, an environmental leader but also a heavy energy user situated downwind of some of our out-of-state air-polluting suppliers. We get about 52% of our electricity from nuclear generation which, while generally safe and clean, can be problematic and risky. Solar energy, while enthusiastically embraced by some environmentally conscious businesses and individuals, is not yet practical for the masses.

Wind energy, clean, infinitely renewable and plentiful at the necessary mean speeds of 18 mph or greater off our coast, holds great promise but not without considerable threats to birds, marine wildlife, fisheries, water quality and ocean vistas. Collisions with the gigantic rotating blades and displacement from their normal migration routes are the main problems for birds. Unfortunately, there is scant hard data available to evaluate the effects of offshore turbines aside from some preliminary output from studies at Denmark’s Nysted wind farm. Long-term monitoring results are needed but simply are not out there.

Meanwhile, the planet is warming and the sea level is rising. Scientists agree that the accumulation of greenhouse gases, generated by human activity, is at least a factor. In time, Cape May could once again become part of the seabed. What would that mean for migratory birds? What does the air pollution and mercury from coal-fired plants mean for all of us? It seems premature to make a decision about whether or not NJ will have an off-shore wind farm, but the prospect is looming. Let’s hope the Blue Ribbon Panel will assiduously gather and weigh all the information available for the next steps.

 

 

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Last revision: January 20, 2006 - 03:45 PM