Time for a Closer Look at Offshore Wind Turbines

Offshore wind is inching closer to reality off the New Jersey coast. The public review process is underway and the big question is: “Will offshore wind make it past the public opinion barrier?”

The advantages of offshore wind are most tightly focused to what now is becoming a screaming need to reduce carbon emissions. Wind is part of the sustainable triad together with solar and wave energy.
Offshore wind is less economically competitive than land based wind (and solar), but has the advantage of being less intrusive than land based wind, especially in a densely populated state like New Jersey.

In this regard New Jersey looks less than the rest of the United States and more like European countries such as the United Kingdom, Denmark and the Netherlands. Those countries have embraced wind, and even more so offshore wind, with a number of large projects completed, and even more under construction.

European Offshore wind projects. Green is complete and other colors are various stages of completion.

Even in those countries the installation of offshore wind turbines is not without public opinion obstacles and in New Jersey there will be similar obstacles.

There will be various stake holders who will have objections and the following objections are commonly raised both in Europe and now in the US:

1. Shipping route impact
2. Fishery impact
3. Wildlife impact
4. Visual impact

I specifically provided the objections in order of increasing validity and will discuss them in that order.

Shipping route impacts can be managed. Offshore wind turbines are no different than any maritime obstruction. With today’s modern navigation systems, if you know where the turbines are they are easy to avoid, and anybody who complains about it is someone with ulterior motives playing a red herring.

Fisheries impact is actually quite limited and may actually be positive. The most direct objection is often raised by commercial bottom fisheries where clammers or other bottom fishermen will complain about loss of potential dredging areas. Undoubtedly some clam dredging acreage may be lost, but that assumes that these fishermen have a special right over other fisheries for those ocean bottom areas, which is inherently a dubious argument. (As in: I have always been allowed to pillage the environment, so why do I have to stop now?).

Very sufficient ocean bottom for clam dredging and other bottom fisheries will remain and will enhance fisheries sustainability. The areas that will become restricted can begin to serve as nurseries for other species, which will inherently increase overall yields. Moreover there is very strong evidence that the wind turbine foundations will also improve overall fishery yields in the form of artificial reef habitats and, often, restrictions result in new and less destructive fishery methods.

Wildlife impact is more complicated. It would be reasonable to assume that wind turbines may impact pelagic or migratory bird species (or bats) to some extent. A lot of research on this subject is taking place and careful analysis and design will reduce the impact. It is significant to note that it is unlikely that these wind turbines will impact birds to an extent that, say, overfishing of horseshoe crabs, or loss of shore habitat and wetland has affected bird populations. At this time there are no indications that any one bird species will be decimated due to even the most extensive offshore wind farm development and while there may be bird lovers who are concerned about manmade bird deaths (which includes me), it needs to be noted that manmade bird deaths from offshore wind turbines will only be a fraction of natural bird deaths in the normal natural struggle for survival.

For the sake of balanced analysis it is significant to note that there is a general misunderstanding that wind turbine blades are not moving sufficiently fast to be a concern for birds. This is an interesting scaling misconception. Since most people observe wind turbines at a distance, the blades just seem to lazily do their thing, but since the blades are hundreds of feet long, even at that apparent slow rotation rate, the blade tips may be going at speeds as high as 180 miles per hour. Those are the speeds a falcon uses to surprise a pigeon in flight. However, it also should be noted that the blades are bigger and make a lot more noise so would be easier to spot by a bird.

That leaves visual impact. While public opinion may not stop offshore wind on the other arguments, visual impact is an entirely different game.

Visual impact is a very complicated, personal and emotional game.

Undoubtedly there are stakeholders who will simply say: “I never want to be able to see these wind turbines when I am enjoying the shore”. That would mean that these wind turbines will have to be positioned as much as 50 miles from shore and this becomes expensive for two reasons: increasing ocean depths that make it more difficult to install the wind turbines, and increasing shore conductor length (the electrical cables that need to run to shore).

Do these stake holders have the right to refuse the installation of wind turbines? That is the “Not in My Backyard” (NIMBY) argument that competes with the common good. And in this case it is truly the common good.

Can some NIMBYs prevent the larger population from achieving environmental sustainability?

Does anybody have the right to NIMBY as far as sustainability is concerned? Some NIMBYs will provide alternative solutions along the lines of: “Well, why don’t you use alternative X or Y?”. This can be translated as: “Why don’t you keep pushing the subject around so everybody gets to NIMBY until  we all drown from rising ocean levels.”

And this is where the rubber hits the road with regard to offshore wind. The offshore wind NIMBY’s will be mostly oceanfront stake holders, but if we do not develop sustainable energy soon, they will not have a stake to hold along their oceanfront, since it will be underwater.

So let’s shift the visual impact argument to a more contemplative level. Let’s assume that there is a large and reasonable segment of stakeholders who all know that some sacrifices need to be made and that are interested in trying to figure out to what extent they will accept the impact of offshore wind turbines.

I certainly have some thoughts about that and when I saw an announcement from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), I dove right in and started looking for the visual impact studies. It took a while, but I found them and started taking a closer look. It is quite a large document, but I have selected three simulations showing the proposed farm off Atlantic City at three distances. (note the photos in the published study are higher resolution, and may be more suitable for intense evaluation)

Here is Brigantine with the farm at 9 miles distance:


Here is the view from the top of Lucy the Elephant in Margate at 14.4 miles distance:


Here is the view from Gillians Wonderland Pier at 17 miles:


I asked myself a question: “If I were living on the shore or thought of a particular location as a favorite shore spot, how close would those wind turbines have to be before I would object?” Initially I may object to all of them because I like a crisp and clean ocean horizon, but then after my first urge to hyperventilate and a moment of Zen contemplation, I posed the question again in a more balanced frame of mind.

Balance is complicated, and when balance comes into play the answer always is: “It depends”.
At 9 miles I think that the Brigantine Beach view is too adversely impacted. Especially because it fills so much of the horizon viewing angle. I would not like it if this were along an undeveloped stretch of beach.

But some areas have already been so visually fouled by aimless human development that they do not inherently deserve to be regarded as candidates for visual protection. In this regard, while I love Lucy the Elephant for its New Jersey weirdness, please do not come to me with arguments of offshore wind visual pollution standing on top of Lucy the Elephant (standing higher increases the visual impact). And that is just Lucy the Elephant, other New Jersey shore developments are much worse.


Personally I do not think that the impact of the wind turbines at 14 miles is overly intrusive on an already crowded shore, even if I were to live along the shore. I would not love them, but I would get it. These wind turbines are the price I pay for keeping my feet dry. It would lower the requirements for a seawall in front of my home and even reduces the risk of the complete submersion of my property. I would have to reason that others are doing their thing to keep my feet dry and this is my contribution.

At 17 miles (and at beach level) the visual impact moves into an entirely different realm.

I actually like the wind turbines at 17 miles regardless of the development ashore.

They are a subtle message of hope and love for our Earth that we pass to our children and grandchildren.

I can see myself standing at Twin Lights with my greatgrandchildren, looking down at Sandy Hook, and looking into New York Bight 17 miles out and saying: See those wind turbines offshore, we put them there so you can enjoy the shore as much as I did when I was young.


Now if only we can have the vision to put some real money into commercial Wave Energy Conversion development and co-locate it with the offshore wind farms we would really have something special to look at. Remember Wave Energy Conversion has no visual impact, and it will just make the wind farms so much cooler.