MYSTIC – Eversource and Ørsted announced a partnership with Mystic Aquarium on Monday to research the possible environmental consequences of offshore wind turbine projects on marine mammals and sea turtles.
Funded with $1.25 million from the energy companies, Mystic Aquarium agreed to tag, track and monitor the health of marine animals as well as investigate the occurrence of strandings before, during and after the construction of three offshore wind farms in the Long Island Sound – South Fork Wind, Sunrise Wind and Revolution Wind.
In 2021, President Joe Biden set a goal to deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030, saying the projects would power 10 million homes, support 77,000 jobs and cut 78 million tons of carbon emissions. But due to their relative novelty, very few comprehensive studies on the effects of offshore turbines on marine life exist.
A 2014 study assessing environmental impacts of offshore wind farms in the United Kingdom, the worldwide leader in offshore wind capacity, identified potential benefits for marine life such as the prohibition of boats within safety buffer zones and wind turbine foundations serving as artificial reefs. But the study also found that certain aspects of the construction phase – pile-driving and increased vessel traffic – could disturb marine mammals.
“The loud sounds emitted during pile driving could potentially cause hearing damage, masking of calls or spatial displacement as animals move out of the area to avoid the noise,” researchers reported. “…There is also a risk to marine mammals, sea turtles and fish of collision and disturbance from vessel movements associated with surveying and installation activities.”
Asked about the planned research and concerns about the effects of offshore energy development, Bill Lucey, Long Island Soundkeeper with Save the Sound, told CT Examiner that pile driving for wind turbines was “pretty loud,” but differed from seismic oil and gas exploration, which is consistent rather than a one-time occurrence.
Lucey also said that the construction of gravity bases – preformed, cement bases – could take the place of pile driving, remedying potential underwater noise pollution and providing economic benefits.
“The advantage of that would be a lot of jobs would be created in New England or wherever a base would be manufactured,” Lucey said. “And instead of having the tower built out of country and then pounded in pretty loud, you could just use gravity bases instead.”
Lucey said that despite concerns about noise pollution in the construction phase, he generally supported the advancement of offshore wind farms and applauded Mystic Aquarium’s efforts.
“I think the wind is a really good way to go,” Lucey said. “But as a biologist and regional environmental advocate for Long Island in particular, we just want it done responsibly. We don’t want any shortcuts.”
Lucey said that he’d like to see more research on the environmental effects, but that he trusted the scientists at Mystic Aquarium to provide unbiased, technical results. He added that he approved of their research methods as well.
As Mystic Aquarium researchers tagged seals and sea turtles, Lucey said, they could identify changes in diving behavior, area avoidance and feeding before, during and after construction. He said that the results would contribute to remedying the lack of data.
“It’s very difficult science,” Lucey explained. “There’s low sample numbers and it’s very expensive to fund marine mammal science. So, any addition to that body of science is good.”
Lucey also acknowledged potential opposition to the research.
“There’s always a risk that if the results or the research or the findings are not to the liking of certain interest groups, there’s going to be a claim of bias.”
But Katie Cubina, vice president of Mystic Aquarium mission programs, told CT Examiner that the wind companies had no control over research data, results or publication. She added that the results would be unbiased and subject to peer review.
“How to address the simultaneous need for species and ecosystem conservation with implementing new energy sources at scale is a tremendous challenge where research is required to supply answers and educate the public,” Cubina said.
She explained that Mystic Aquarium supported the responsible development of offshore wind to address the global climate crisis and meet Connecticut’s greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.
Along with South Fork Wind and Sunrise Wind, projects on the New York coast, Eversource and Ørsted aim to develop Revolution Wind, Connecticut’s first offshore wind farm. According to the project website, construction would finish by 2025 and the farm could generate enough energy to power more than 350,000 Connecticut and Rhode Island homes.
In an email to CT Examiner, Will Healey, a spokesperson for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said that Revolution Wind and Park City Wind procurements of almost 1,000 megawatts would represent nearly 20 percent of the state energy supply.
Asked how DEEP supported Eversource and Ørsted in the development of Revolution Wind, Healey said they “conducted procurements for grid-scale renewable and zero carbon resources to provide the support needed to bring these resources online.”
Healey said that offshore wind procurements were major components of the state goal to obtain a zero-carbon electric supply by 2040, but acknowledged environmental effects as well. He said DEEP participated in the Regional Wildlife Science Entity, a collaborative partnership to research and monitor the effects of offshore wind energy development on wildlife and ecosystems.
“Given that OSW is a key aspect of our strategy to reduce carbon emissions from our electric grid in Connecticut, we need to make sure it is installed and managed in a manner consistent with our mission of environmental conservation,” Healey said. “Working within the RWSE allows us to leverage the expertise of all of the participants to develop consistent approaches based on the best available science.”