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Is the Answer Blowing In the Wind?

Published: November 5, 2006

FOR almost a year, five turbines on New Jersey's first coastal wind farm have been generating electricity in Atlantic City, their slowly revolving 118-foot-long blades making the turbines resemble gigantic upright roulette wheels.

They are the first full-size turbines along the coast in New York and New Jersey and the region's first working examples of a clean-energy technology that supporters say will one day ease dependence on oil and gas and begin to address concerns about global warming.

They may also be a forerunner to more ambitious, far larger projects now under discussion for the coast of New Jersey, Long Island and, depending on oil prices and the future of wind power technology, even Connecticut, where a lack of strong winds has so far deterred investment.

Wind farms are no longer just demonstration projects elsewhere, though. In upstate New York, 181 turbines at four wind farms in Lewis, Madison and Wyoming Counties can produce about 280 megawatts in optimum winds. Hundreds more turbines are proposed.

Nationally, Texas and California are the leaders in wind energy production, which crossed the 10,000-megawatt threshold earlier this year (10,000 megawatts is enough to power 2.5 million homes). The American Wind Energy Association, a trade group in Washington, said that more than 19,000 wind turbines were in operation. The association predicts that about 3,000 megawatts will be added nationally each year for the next several years.

Europe, led by Germany and Spain, is in the forefront of wind energy, producing two-thirds of the 59,000 megawatts generated worldwide, the Global Wind Energy Council said.

Yet, despite the operation of New Jersey's small wind project since January, there is uncertainty about whether wind farms, particularly gigantic turbines positioned off the region's coastline, will be embraced here.

On Long Island, a 40-turbine project being considered off the South Shore is facing stiff resistance from opponents who argue that the turbines will damage pristine ocean views, fail to deliver cost-effective electricity and create environmental problems.

In New Jersey, powerful local politicians have lined up behind wind power, where up to 80 turbines -- rising 380 feet or more above the water along the South Jersey coastline -- have been proposed to take advantage of the near-constant breezes.

That pilot project, which was recommended by a statewide blue-ribbon panel charged with evaluating offshore wind systems, would test the technology and, if successful, set the stage for other offshore projects. Gov. Jon S. Corzine supports proceeding with the project, but no site has been chosen.

The five turbines in Atlantic City, with a track record of nearly a year, can generate a combined 8 megawatts when winds are blowing at 13 to 40 miles an hour.

For a state whose energy consumption tops 17,000 megawatts at the summer peak, the output is minuscule -- and with winds being inconsistent, the turbines usually produce far less than 8 megawatts. Richard Dovey, the president of the Atlantic County Utilities Authority, the operator of the turbines, said that while the turbines' megawatt production varied because of fluctuations in wind, there were few bad wind days.

Mr. Dovey said that there had been few complaints about the emission-free coastal turbines. But public acceptance of 80 turbines clearly visible from ocean beaches -- including, perhaps, just off Cape May or the casino-lined Atlantic City Boardwalk beach -- has yet to be tested. The demonstration project is not visible from the beaches. It is located near a wastewater treatment plant on an island tucked away from the Boardwalk and beaches.

About 100 miles away, off Long Island's South Shore, the Long Island Power Authority is seeking to become a national leader in wind power with plans for 40 offshore turbines in an eight-square-mile area in federal waters as close as 3.6 miles to Jones Beach State Park. But unlike the Atlantic City project, the LIPA proposal is meeting strong opposition.

The project, which could produce up to 140 megawatts of power in optimum wind, has emphatic support from environmental groups, which regard it as a crucial step toward clean energy that will reduce dependence on imported oil and gas and combat, in however small a way, global warming. Polls, including one taken on Sept. 20 by Hofstra University for the cable channel News 12 Long Island, have shown strong public support for the project. But it also has a growing list of detractors.

The Save Jones Beach Ad Hoc Committee, a grass-roots group made up mostly of South Shore residents that is the leading opponent, contends that the turbines would be a waste of customers' money; a poor alternative to repowering existing fossil-fuel plants to boost capacity while greatly reducing emissions; a killer of birds and fish; and an eyesore.

''In Atlantic City, they had a sewer plant and they put five turbines next to it,'' said Walter Arnold, a committee director from West Gilgo Beach, N.Y. ''Here, you're talking about 40 turbines off a state and national historic park, and 28 miles of electric cables.''

The group is not alone in its opposition. Local officials including Steven Bellone, the town supervisor in Babylon, N.Y., complain that the project is being inappropriately fast-tracked by federal agencies and will run roughshod over environmental reviews.

As the region faces the possibility of large-scale commercial wind farms with turbines as tall as 425 feet -- more than 100 feet higher than the Statue of Liberty -- the debate over projects on the horizon in South Jersey, on Long Island and elsewhere is intensifying.

Wind farm economics, better turbine technology, government emphasis on renewable energy and a key federal tax break -- the production tax credit -- make wind farms more attractive for major companies like FPL Energy, a global wind power giant in Juno Beach, Fla., which would build and own the LIPA project. Much of the action in the region will be offshore, in contrast to the rest of the country, including upstate New York, where most wind turbines are being built on land.

The local wind fields that come closest to providing average 18-mile-an-hour breezes, the optimum to turn turbine blades and maximize electricity output, are along the Jersey Shore and Long Island's South Shore, according to wind-energy experts.

Connecticut is unlikely to join the movement onshore or off, at least for the foreseeable future. Experts say that given current technology, winds off Long Island Sound are too weak for commercial wind farms; a prevalence of buildings and trees take Connecticut, New Jersey and downstate New York, including Long Island and Westchester County, out of the running for large land-based wind projects.

Upstate New York, on the other hand, has wind fields that make it one of the best sites in the nation for wind power, says the American Wind Energy Association. Without tax breaks and other incentives, however, large-scale wind farming, particularly offshore, is not likely to attract developers and investors. That would be a setback for states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which have set goals for increased renewable energy.

In New Jersey, for example, wind power is central to a goal of meeting 20 percent of energy demand from renewable sources by 2020. In New York, Gov. George E. Pataki, who supports the LIPA project, has set a similar goal.

Nobody expects offshore wind farms to be cheap. At $12 million, the five onshore turbines in Atlantic City cost just a fraction of the expected costs for the far larger New Jersey and LIPA projects.

While the Long Island Power Authority and FPL have declined to estimate the cost of building the 40 South Shore turbines, estimates generally run from $300 million to $400 million. The 80 New Jersey turbines could cost twice as much, depending on water depth and other factors.

LIPA would also pay an estimated $40 million to run a transmission line to an onshore power substation near Massapequa from a floating substation connected to the turbines. Transmission costs in New Jersey would depend on the turbines' distance from shore and their proximity to a near-shore substation, a key consideration. The five Atlantic City turbines are next to a substation.

A report done for the New Jersey blue-ribbon panel noted that the cost of generating electricity from onshore wind turbines dropped from 30 cents a kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s to about 5 cents now. But it estimated that offshore turbine generation cost close to 9 cents a kilowatt-hour because of higher construction, operating and transmission costs.

By contrast, power generated by oil-, gas- and coal-powered plants feeding into the PJM Interconnection -- the grid operator covering most of the country from the Hudson River to the Chicago area and as far south as North Carolina -- costs 2 to 3 cents a kilowatt-hour, the report said. PJM supplies power to 51 million customers.

The 140-megawatt maximum the LIPA project would produce amounts to slightly more than 2 percent of its peak use of 5,792 megawatts and equals only about half the output of a small utility generator powered by natural gas.

Often, LIPA said, its turbines would provide less than half the 140-megawatt maximum. Production would flatten most in the summer, when winds are lightest and Long Island's electric demand is greatest.

In Europe, power providers are having trouble coping with the variable output of wind turbines, according to a study by ABS Energy Research in London. When winds slacken, providers must scramble to draw supplies from conventional plants, the report said. It also suggested that wind power was having only limited impact on overall greenhouse gas emissions.

For large-scale wind farm developers, subsidies and public policies that assure that every kilowatt of wind power will have a buyer help bridge the cost-per-kilowatt gap. The largest tax offset, the production tax credit, allows developers and investors to recoup capital costs more quickly once turbines are producing. But the credit expires at the end of 2007.

While the wind industry expects Congress to extend it, slowness could hamstring projects. Congress has let the credit lapse three times in the past, each time causing a virtual cessation of projects until it was reinstated.

LIPA and FPL want to complete construction of the South Shore turbines in 2009; various federal approvals are needed.

Project supporters say the tax credit would be passed along to customers, but critics see a bonanza for FPL, the world's largest wind farm owner and operator. ''They are going to have federal tax credits all over the place,'' said Philip Healey, a Save Jones Beach member from Massapequa. ''They're not doing this because it's a noble cause. They want their money back.''

Richard M. Kessel, LIPA's chairman, says that turbine opponents are reaching for any monkey wrench available. ''The bottom line is you are either for the environment or you are against it,'' he said.

Still, turbines are not always environmentally benign. A turbine complex in Altamont Pass in the San Francisco Bay Area begun in the 1980s has killed thousands of raptors, including golden eagles. (FPL is among its owners.) In the Southeast, turbines, including ones owned by FPL, have killed large numbers of bats.

Audubon societies in New York and New Jersey support wind technology but say wind farms must be properly located. Audubon officials said that required three years of close on-site and radar observation.

But turbine supporters see no insurmountable obstacles. In New Jersey, State Senator William L. Gormley wrote to Governor Corzine in September asking that the offshore project be located in state waters within three miles of the Atlantic County coast. Mr. Corzine will consider the request, a spokesman, Anthony Coley, said.

''This senator from New Jersey lives on the coast and doesn't have a problem,'' said Mr. Gormley, a Republican from Margate. ''People in my district have found windmills are environmentally friendly and aesthetically pleasing.''

OFFICIALS in Cape May County, hard by the best offshore wind fields in the state, are less enthusiastic. Diane Wieland, the director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism and a member of the blue-ribbon panel, said she worried that turbines off Cape May would give tourists a reason to go elsewhere. Tourism is a $30 billion-a-year industry in New Jersey, the state estimates.

''What would it take to flip them?'' she said. ''The Atlantic City turbines look great, but they're on land.''

Whether offshore turbines would be audible from land is also an issue. Some people fear a distant whup-whup-whup from the turbine blades. In Atlantic City, Mr. Dovey said there had been no noise complaints from a residential area just across busy Route 30 from the turbines.

From underneath, the turning blades made a powerful whooshing and paper-tearing sound on a breezy fall afternoon.

A new opponent on Long Island, Donald Trump, raises an additional issue. He said that the turbines would spoil the view from the recently proposed three-story Trump on the Ocean catering hall that he is financing at Jones Beach.

''Wind turbines opposite Jones Beach will be an environmental disaster, both in terms of visual and noise,'' Mr. Trump said. ''They are not a pretty thing to look at.''

Mr. Kessel, the LIPA chairman, was equally critical of Mr. Trump. ''For someone who wants to spoil Jones Beach by building a three-story monster catering hall right on the beach, and that's O.K., but windmills aren't, enough said,'' he said.

Another Kind of Farm

While Long Island and New Jersey are considering offshore wind farms, the region's wind turbine projects that are furthest along are in upstate New York.

The largest complex east of the Mississippi, Maple Ridge, on the Tug Hill Plateau in Lewis County, N.Y., generates up to 322 megawatts from 195 turbines. With the blades in the upward position, the turbines stand 390 feet tall.

Much smaller wind farms in New York are operating in Fenner (30 megawatts), Madison (11.5 megawatts) and Wethersfield (6.6 megawatts). More than 50 projects, many expected to generate more than 100 megawatts, are seeking approvals.

The upstate projects do have critics. Some residents in communities where they have been proposed, including Cohocton and Prattsburgh in the Finger Lakes region, are recoiling from the prospect of vistas lined with the turbines and asking whether private developers are leaving residents with turbine blight. JOHN RATHER