Nine states along the East Coast that are frontrunners for American offshore wind farms over the next decade are in talks with the federal government about ways to mitigate revenue losses for commercial fishing once the farms are built out.
Commercial fishing industries in the Mid-Atlantic have long been opposed to offshore wind farms, which coastal states and the Biden administration are pushing as a necessary component of a greener power grid. The fishing interests, which argue that the wind farms will interfere with their operations, are seen as the last major holdout to hundreds of wind turbines in the ocean from North Carolina to Massachusetts.
Commercial fisheries say the wind farms, which would be spread over hundreds of nautical miles, could displace wildlife, and shorten the amount of time spent fishing while at sea.
The nine states initially proposed providing some sort of subsidy to commercial fishing in a June 4 letter to President Joe Biden. Reuters first reported Wednesday that talks have begun between the federal government and states in how to offset fishing revenue losses.
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The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection confirmed in a statement that those talks are underway.
"Building on the request made in the multi-state (June 4) Governor’s letter, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has had preliminary discussions with counterparts in other signatory states on engaging the federal government to advance an equitable mitigation framework for potential impacts to the commercial fishing industry from offshore wind projects," the DEP statement said. "While in early stages of development, NJDEP anticipates more to be shared in the coming months."
How fisheries would be compensated, and by whom, remains unclear. But a spokesman for Ørsted, which is developing a few of the Mid-Atlantic offshore wind farms, said in a statement that the company welcomes "a more predictable and regional methodology that could help avoid and minimize potential impact."
"While in its early stages, a more programmatic and transparent mitigation framework could bring greater certainty to all potentially affected parties as the U.S. pursues its clean energy strategy," the company statement said. "We look forward to partnering with policymakers and stakeholders to help advance this initiative that can help enable the type of sustainable renewable energy development that is part of Orsted’s vision."
A spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Oceanic Energy Management, which is overseeing federal permitting for wind farms, did not respond to a request for comment.
With or without subsidies to commercial fisheries, offshore wind development will come with an increase in costs to electricity customers, at least in the early years of the new power supply. In New Jersey, the average residential ratepayer is expected to pay more than $5 per month for three farms approved by the state's Board of Public Utilities. At least three more farms are expected to be approved in the next six years.
Energy experts, however, do anticipate costs to decline as the industry is built in the United States and as the first few wind farms are erected in the Mid-Atlantic.
New Jersey BPU President Joseph Fiordaliso said in an interview last month that renewable energy is more expensive, but that might not be the case in the longrun.
"Clean energy is expensive, no doubt about it. But you have to do something about it," Fiordaliso said, referring to climate change. "This could lead to an economic boom. New Jersey has the potential to be a supply chain for the entire East Coast."
He added, "I’m happy with those prices right now but I anticipate those prices to decrease" as the industry is built out both with better technology and local supply chains.
Offshore wind turbines continue to get larger and larger in size as scientists and companies behind the projects say that the technology is proving that bigger means more efficient. A 12-megawatt turbine, the largest currently on the market and planned for some upcoming American developments, can power a single-family home for two days with just a single rotation of its blades.
Offshore Wind Farms: The Lease Areas and Developers
Seventeen federally leased areas are off the coasts of eight U.S. states. Click on each lease site to see how many turbines are expected or estimated, to which developer they belong and how much power will be generated. Turbine totals are either based on developers’ proposals or estimated using power generated by the largest turbine currently on the market.
Data: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
Nina Lin / NBC
Proponents of offshore wind farms say they are needed to replace dirtier power sources like coal and gas, but commercial fishermen in New Jersey, New England and elsewhere say thousands of turbines in the Mid-Atlantic threaten their livelihood.
It also remains unclear the extent to which thousands of turbines would have on the stratification process of the Mid-Atlantic "Cold Pool," a natural process that affects ocean temperatures and wildlife.
Atlantic Shores announced this week that it will fund a $500,000 study of how offshore wind farms and climate change will affect surf clams in the Mid-Atlantic. The surf clam industry is one of the most valuable New Jersey fisheries, and studies have shown that the two main leases areas off the Garden State's coast are often fished by clam boats.
"Clams are patchy. You might tow for two to three miles and not catch anything, then hit a great patch two to three miles long, 100-200 foot wide, and if you stay on that patch you're able to harvest," said Tom Dameron, a former fishing captain and fleet manager at Surfside Foods in Port Norris, New Jersey. "But if you have a cable going across that patch, that patch is no longer viable."
He provided two reports issued late last year analyzing the clam fishery's use of ocean waters off New Jersey where wind farms are now planned. They show an overlap of clam fishing in recent years with future placement of turbines.
Surfside, which is one of the largest clamming companies in the Mid-Atlantic, operates on tight margins for quahog and ocean clams, Dameron said, noting that the large wind farms could mean longer routes to and from fishing spots that drive up fuel costs and the amount of time dredging for clams.
"The clams are live when we catch them and need to be processed in a certain amount of time," Dameron said. "To be trying to fish in a wind turbine area and fishing at 50% capacity, you’re not staying out there twice as long. So you’re coming in with half, and the economics are very tough."