Will Wind Power Save the Shore, or Ruin It Forever?
The biggest battle at the Shore these days isn’t over unruly teens, but over a wind-power project that’s pitting green-energy supporters against folks who think the only thing turbines will do is spoil a perfectly good beach.
There was a whale on the beach of Ocean City. Black and white, of average height and stocky build; its mouth was agape, revealing a set of pointy white teeth. It was a warm summer day in July, and the beach was packed as tight as a mosh pit. At the shoreline, people stood together in a row, watching the creature before them. Technically speaking, the creature wasn’t a whale; it was a human dressed as one, wearing a full body costume. He was a local real estate agent named Rich Baehrle, and he was shouting about a matter of great importance: “Stop the windmills!”
Baehrle was among the more dedicated protesters on the beach, but there were hundreds in all, stretching from a wooden pier to a rusted drainpipe. American flags rippled in the breeze. Many protesters wore white t-shirts reading STOP THE WINDFARMS — a message from Protect Our Coast, a small nonprofit that cropped up in the past year and a half to oppose the construction of giant offshore wind turbines, which, the protesters claimed, would destroy the Jersey Shore, both for the humans who enjoy going to the beach there and for the wildlife living in the ocean.
If you haven’t been tuned into the minutiae of Shore politics, this scene could seem a little confounding. By all scientific accounts, the Jersey Shore has already been highly affected by climate change and sea-level rise. According to a Rutgers University report, sea level there has risen 18 inches over the past century — more than double the global average. The devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 isn’t a distant memory. Even if you don’t believe in “climate change,” as one sign on the beach pointedly scare-quoted it, it’s increasingly difficult to argue with the reality on the ground. Sunny-day floods in Atlantic City, for instance, have swelled from less than once a year on average in the 1950s to eight times a year this century. More than 20,000 homes, worth a combined $13 billion, have become newly at risk of frequent flooding since the 1980s — figures that are only projected to rise.
In this context, offshore wind might not sound like such a bad idea. Democratic Governor Phil Murphy has pledged to produce 11,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2040 — one of the most ambitious targets in the country. His predecessor, Republican governor Chris Christie, was an early offshore wind supporter. A poll taken near the end of his term in 2017 found that 75 percent of New Jersey residents supported offshore wind development along the coast. For most of the past two decades, wind power hasn’t been a particularly contentious issue.
In Ocean City, the community angst concerns Ocean Wind 1, a project to be built by the Danish corporation Orsted. By the time of its expected completion in 2026, Ocean Wind’s 98 turbines 15 miles offshore will power an estimated 500,000 homes and, at 1,100 megawatts, constitute the largest offshore wind development in the country. As sign after sign along the beach pointed out, Orsted’s turbines will be quite large: at 906 feet, taller than the Washington Monument, or, a little closer to home, Ocean Casino. Maddy Urbish, Orsted’s head of government affairs, says they’ll be “very faintly visible on the clearest of days.” Orsted has submitted visual simulations, though, and in those images, the turbines look more than a little visible, appearing like rows of birthday candles on the glistening horizon. Anti-wind groups have taken this and run with it, putting up billboards with the message STOP OFFSHORE WIND and an image of gigantic, not-to-scale turbines splayed across the sky. The local Ocean City government has followed suit, placing signs along the boardwalk with a more realistic simulated view of the turbines from the beach and posing the question: “At What Cost?”
If view concerns were the only factor, it might be easy to dismiss the dissenters as a group of wealthy, self-interested, shortsighted Shore homeowners concerned only with their property values and being able to sit on their balconies and see nothing but the clear, encroaching ocean. Initially, that might not have been an inaccurate description. Orsted’s project has been in the works since 2019, and in the early days, there was little public furor, and almost all of the complaints concerned the view.
Then the whales started washing up onshore — 36 in all since 2020, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says is part of an “unknown mortality event” that’s been going on since 2016. (From 2012 to 2015, 19 whales washed up in New Jersey.) Suddenly, more and more people started paying attention to the wind turbines, and for this newly activated group, there was nothing unknown about it: Offshore wind was killing the whales. (Their main claim, unsupported by any scientific evidence, is that sonar from pre-construction surveying of the ocean disorients the whales, leading them to get trapped in fishing nets or struck by boats.)
Lately, the anti-wind cohort has grown more organized. Facebook pages have morphed into real-life community groups. Three different local nonprofits, stretching from Ocean City to Long Beach Island, have filed lawsuits in a bid to tie Orsted up long enough that the project becomes economically unfeasible. Republican Congressman Jeff Van Drew, who as recently as 2021 was a co-chair of the offshore wind caucus in Congress, seems to have sensed a shift in the prevailing political winds and has jumped into the fray, holding hearings and likening the wind developers’ behavior to “communism,” which sure doesn’t sound good. Thirty Shore mayors have signed a letter opposing all offshore wind construction. Elected officials in Cape May County have stonewalled Orsted by refusing to grant construction permits, leading to multiple lawsuits. Fox News has taken note, running one segment with the Succession-esque chyron “Green New Deal wind farms are killing off whales.” Time is of the essence, because in July, the Biden administration formally approved Ocean Wind 1. Onshore construction is slated to begin this fall, and some turbine components are already being manufactured.
On the beach in Ocean City, the protesters ranged from lifelong locals to recent retirees from the Philly suburbs to families who’ve owned summer Shore homes for more than a century. Arguments against the turbines ran the gamut. “Why are they not building this along the Grand Canyon?” wondered Kathleen Herwig, an Ocean City homeowner who lives in Princeton. “This is my Grand Canyon.” Robin Shaffer, a local school-board member who’s on the board of Protect Our Coast, expressed concern over the turbine supply chain and rare-earth minerals that are mined abroad: “Because Phil Murphy wants to feel good about the carbon footprint, we’re screwing over the third world,” he said. “Don’t they deserve clean air and water like we do? It’s virtue signaling and environmental colonialism, in my opinion.” Douglas Crawford, a retired software engineer who was carrying a portable speaker as he shouted slogans up and down the line, said he was working on a “cost analysis” that would show offshore wind is less economical than installing solar panels on every home in New Jersey. “I’m not an expert,” he admitted, “but I’ve learned a lot the past year.” A small-business owner from Collegeville named Jan described the project as a “money grab” and “really corrupt” and spoke of “weird men” on Facebook who showed up to defend wind turbines anytime she attacked the project. “They’re trying to push it from Denmark because it’s their job,” she said.
Meanwhile, Baehrle, the human whale, was walking back and forth across the beach like a drill sergeant. He carried a selfie stick, which he used to record himself in a video that eventually made its way to the Protect Our Coast Facebook page, which has more than 20,000 members. “We are being invaded by foreign countries who are out to destroy our ocean,” he said. “Please join in and stop the windmills!” The impassioned plea for saving marine life didn’t seem to be the only thing on Baehrle’s mind, though, because in the very next sentence, he pivoted to a different message: “Get rich on real estate!” Then he shared his phone number.
Despite all the clamor surrounding it, offshore wind isn’t a new technology. Europe has been using it for decades. The first-ever project, built by Orsted off the coast of Denmark in 1991, consisted of 11 turbines and powered some 2,200 homes. In the years since, offshore wind has set sail, and there are now 123 wind farms in 12 different European countries. Wind constitutes roughly 17 percent of Europe’s total energy production, and while the majority of Europe’s new wind construction remains onshore, turbines sited in the sea have certain advantages, chief among them the ability to generate more energy, both because there’s more wind over the ocean and because the turbines can be built bigger.
The U.S., by comparison, has just seven offshore wind turbines: five powering Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, and two test turbines off the coast of Virginia. The Biden administration has placed a big bet on offshore wind, with a goal of creating 30 gigawatts by 2030 — enough to power 10 million homes. (One gigawatt is equivalent to 1,000 megawatts.) The European Union already has 28 gigawatts of installed offshore wind power, according to the trade group WindEurope, which is another way of saying that Europe has a considerable head start and that the U.S. is essentially trying to equal in less than a decade what Europe has produced in 30 years.
To achieve that, you need a fair amount of land, and a big chunk of federal waters has been set aside for offshore wind. There are more than 30 different offshore leasing areas currently under development, including in the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. Most activity, though, is along the Atlantic Coast, in an area running from Massachusetts to South Carolina. Two projects, one off New York and one off Massachusetts, are currently under construction. Orsted’s Ocean Wind 1 is due up next, to be followed by Atlantic Shores South, an adjacent and even larger wind farm to be built by Shell and EDF 10 to 20 miles off the coast between Atlantic City and the southern tip of Long Beach Island. Both projects are the initial phase of two-part developments: Orsted’s Ocean Wind 2 will stretch as far south as Cape May, while Shell-EDF’s Atlantic Shores North will complete the chain, running approximately the entire length of Long Beach Island.
Environmental groups hail this as a crucial and potentially transformative development. “We’ve had the fastest rate of sea-level rise on the East Coast,” says Doug O’Malley, head of the nonprofit Environment New Jersey. “We’re loading the deck for more extreme weather and more flooding in our coastal communities, and that’s why it’s critical to look at how we can follow the climate science to reduce emissions as quickly as possible.” For all of the “What about solar?” questions, O’Malley points out that the largest solar installations in the state currently produce just 20 to 30 megawatts of power — 50 times less than Ocean Wind 1. “If we don’t build offshore wind,” he says, “there isn’t a kind of next alternative source of energy.”
Offshore wind has grown more efficient at generating power in recent years, and according to Orsted, its turbines now rival fossil fuels like natural gas and coal. The technology also presents a giant economic opportunity. New Jersey has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to construct a “wind port” in South Jersey that, if all goes according to plan, will serve as a regional hub for turbine manufacturing and assembly — a new, high-tech industry in the state.
Despite all this, offshore wind isn’t always a popular proposition. In the 2000s, a developer tried to build a project known as Cape Wind in Massachusetts. Cape Wind made the ultimately fatal mistake of trying to place its turbines next to two of the most politically connected and wealthiest enclaves in the country: Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. Everyone from the Kennedys to the Kochs publicly opposed the construction — here, too, view concerns were top of mind — and the opposition raised $40 million to fund lawsuits against the project, according to the New York Times. After a decade-long saga, Cape Wind finally pulled the plug in 2017. (A number of new wind farms have since been planned for the area; crucially, they’re located farther offshore and have more government support.)
Cape Wind, essentially, is the opposition’s model. And from the Jersey opponents’ perspective, their timing could hardly be better. The economic climate is changing even faster than the meteorological one, with inflation and supply-chain pressures galore. That’s a problem for wind-energy developers because they’ve signed fixed-price contracts, negotiated years ago, with public utilities. (The Jersey board of public utilities has estimated that the Ocean Wind 1 project will cost ratepayers an additional $1.46 per month.) Orsted has already told the state legislature it needs more money for the project, and it ended up snagging a significant tax credit — a massive affront to the anti-wind crowd. Unsurprisingly, Atlantic Shores has begun signaling it might need a similar tax break.
But if the lawsuits can tie up construction long enough, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen. Already there are portentous signs: In Massachusetts, two developers recently backed out of contracts for wind farms that would have produced more than two gigawatts of power, citing rising costs. And in late August, Orsted announced that Ocean Wind 1, originally scheduled to be completed in 2025, would be delayed for one year, even as preparatory work would continue. On a company call with investors, North American CEO David Hardy said, “As it stands today, we believe the best direction is to continue to invest in these projects” — hardly a full-throated endorsement.
The face of the anti-wind opposition, or at least the one with the best shot at derailing wind power at the Jersey Shore, is a retired octogenarian named Bob Stern. Stern is gray-haired and soft-spoken and dresses like an aging outdoorsman. In reality, he earned his doctorate in applied mathematics when he was 23 and went on to work at the Energy Department, where he reviewed the environmental impact statements of proposed projects. This professional background confers on him a certain baked-in credibility.
Stern has had a house on Long Beach Island for decades and moved there full-time with his wife after retiring. He started paying attention to offshore wind about two years ago and was initially concerned about the visual impact, which the wind companies said would be negligible. “I just kind of knew that was not correct,” Stern says. He placed an ad sounding the alarm in the SandPaper, LBI’s local newspaper, and soon enough, many of his neighbors shared his apprehensions. In 2021, Stern incorporated his nonprofit, Save LBI, which has more or less consumed his life ever since.
Stern comes at the turbine issue from two different angles. The first is what you could call a climate-doomer perspective. “You probably heard the scientists back a ways saying we had to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees centigrade in order to fix this stuff, and they were right,” he says. “But we’ve missed that boat.” Stern’s contention is that if the boat has been missed and sea-level rise is inevitable, why build giant turbines and destroy the view of the beach, which is one of the few nice things we’ll have left? If current emissions trends hold, we will indeed blow past 1.5 degrees of warming, but according to climate experts, sea-level rise could still significantly worsen if temperature rise continues. When I paraphrased Stern’s reasoning to Robert Kopp, a Rutgers sea-level scientist who contributed to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, his brain seemed to short-circuit. He kept calling Stern’s rationale “extremely bizarre” and said that his claims were “totally inconsistent with what the actual dangers of climate change are, which is something that gets worse with every ton of carbon dioxide we emit.”
The other knock Stern and fellow anti-wind organizers make against turbines is that ultimately, the projects are small potatoes. “Given the global reality of climate change and sea-level rise, these projects have no effect on any of that,” Stern says. The offshore wind developers have said as much themselves: “Overall, it is anticipated that there would be no collective impact on global warming as a result of offshore wind projects, including the Proposed Action alone,” the developers for the Vineyard Wind project in Massachusetts wrote in one of their planning documents. The point the developers were trying to make is that offshore wind won’t solve the climate problem alone and needs to be part of a collective effort. But wind opponents cite this line frequently, stripping it of nuance and taking it as an admission that the technology is pointless.
Seeking to be a little more pragmatic than the other groups that have opposed all offshore wind, Stern has proposed siting the turbines further offshore, where they won’t be as visible. “If you want to implement a program that doesn’t have real clear benefits,” he says, “at least don’t do a lot of collateral damage in your wake.” He hasn’t made much progress in this respect. “There’s no real dialogue; there’s no real attempt to reach compromise,” he says. A 21-page letter he sent to President Biden went unanswered.
Absent dialogue, Stern has taken to spreading the gospel at community meetings and raising funds. He won’t disclose how much money Save LBI has raised, but its most recent filing with the IRS reveals it had gleaned $120,000 as of 2021. On a Wednesday evening in July, Stern held a fund-raiser at the Long Beach Island Foundation, a local art gallery. The LBI crowd was a little more refined than the Ocean City protesters: Pastel-colored polos greatly outnumbered American-flag and Philly sports apparel, though one person was wearing a Knicks t-shirt.
Stern’s talk was titled “Offshore wind — promises and realities,” and he spoke for 50 minutes, beginning with his usual prelude about the futility of staving off climate change and the inevitable sea-level rise coming New Jersey’s way. He sketched out a scatterplot of concerns about the turbines: their impacts on marine wildlife and birds; the sound from their operation, which he claimed would be audible from the shore; the visible rotation of the blades, which “could be very disturbing and difficult”; the lower breeze and higher temperature at the Shore because the “wind turbines are extracting the energy we are going to get”; the impacts on tourism and property values and electricity rates; the likelihood that construction jobs would go to European foreigners and not locals; the potential for turbines to disrupt military radar and jeopardize national security; the risk of turbines being destroyed in hurricanes; and the prospect that the turbines might never be decommissioned, even at the end of their life cycle, and would be left standing in the ocean like perverse totems. Most of these claims are either unfounded or exaggerated — at least, according to federal officials, the wind companies, and scientific experts — but the power of Stern’s messaging is that he can parry their expertise with claims of his own.
The speech was going well, with the crowd engaged and muttering “Oh my God!” at all the right moments. As Stern approached his conclusion, he turned to a tried-and-true message. The government’s so-called experts had failed to account for something critical: the will of the people. “The people in Trenton and in Northern Virginia, they may think they know everything, but they do not know everything,” he declared. “They decide on the location, they decide on the number of turbines, the company decides they want to buy the big noisy turbines, and then at the end of the process, they come to you, they plop down a 3,000-page environmental impact statement, and they say, ‘Hey, we really want your input.’ In my experience in the Energy Department, this would be just about the worst EIS process I’ve ever seen.”
Stern shared that he had already submitted 208 pages of public comments in response to the Atlantic Shores environmental impact statement. (He had the comments printed and bound, and he carries them around like his personal Bible.) This was all critical preparation, he explained, because “in four or five months, they will approve this project, and we will be filing lawsuits.” On the screen behind him was a list of 11 different planned suits, with claims of harm regarding everything from the Endangered Species Act to the National Environmental Policy Act to the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to the Noise Control Act of 1972. “Honestly,” Stern told the crowd, “that is when the real battle begins.”
One of the strengths of the anti-wind groups is their ability to modulate their message. All the Protect Our Coast board members I spoke to told me they believe in climate change. You wouldn’t necessarily know it from the group’s Facebook page, though, where discussion hews toward the conspiracy-inflected talking points du jour and every other word seems to be “hoax.” Someone recently posted an article about how Oprah owns a Shore property, joking that maybe she would help fund their opposition to the turbines. The quip didn’t land. “Oprah is an elitist (NUMERO UNO) and is part of the climate change hoax/one world agenda,” someone replied in a comment that got 40 likes. When I spoke to Protect Our Coast board member Roseanne Serowatka, she told me she remains supportive of green energy in general, despite her doubts about offshore wind. Later, I found a clip of her speaking at a public meeting where her tune sounded closer to that of someone at a local school-board hearing railing against library books and left-wing indoctrination. She claimed that people “idolizing the green-energy gods” were inserting pro-renewable-energy materials into the curriculum and that the wind developers “sponsored children’s brainwashing” by organizing an event where local kids went to the beach and built model wind turbines.
The wind debate has occasionally gotten tense. In July, a group of anti-wind citizens descended on a public meeting in Atlantic City — one of the few Shore towns whose elected officials support offshore wind — and proceeded to, as one local publication put it, “open a can of whoop-ass on” the politicians. “What is your backup plan when you lose?” asked a guy in cargo shorts and a trucker hat who wasn’t from Atlantic City. “Because we’ve got your names, we’ve got your résumés, and you’re not going to get any more work in this state.” He went on to tell the local officials, “God will judge you for this,” earning a huge round of applause from the crowd and flashing a triumphant hang-loose sign as he walked back to his seat.
I really don’t want to have that confrontation with people, because people are just irrational, and they won’t even listen to the science.” — Sheila Dean, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center
But such scenes have generally been the exception rather than the norm. If there hasn’t been much of a battle between the pro- and anti-turbine camps, it’s because many offshore wind supporters have concluded it simply isn’t worth their while. “We originally tried to communicate, but they were dead set,” says Jody Stewart, who lives in the back-bay town of Little Egg Harbor and whose home was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy. “I know I can’t change someone’s mind who’s dead set. I don’t even try.” Instead, the two sides mostly try to ignore each other. Sheila Dean, the head of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, hasn’t taken a position on offshore wind one way or the other, but she’s stopped attending public events about the turbines, even though they inevitably feature discussions about whale deaths. “I don’t feel like being stoned to death,” she jokes. Then she adds, more soberly, “I really don’t want to have that confrontation with people, because people are just irrational, and they won’t even listen to the science. You can’t talk to those people. They’re just based totally on their emotions, and it’s a waste of my time to talk to them.”
As the debate draws on, the two sides have begun to impugn each other’s motives. The pro-wind side alleges that offshore wind opponents are being funded by fossil-fuel interests. (A fund-raising link on Protect Our Coast’s webpage used to redirect to the website for a pro-fossil-fuel group called the Caesar Rodney Institute, though the latter has denied ever funding Protect Our Coast, claiming it merely acted as a bank for the young nonprofit as it got off the ground.) It also questions the anti-wind side’s environmental bona fides. Stewart claims the founder of one of the main anti-wind groups was originally concerned about the view and has become a whale advocate as a convenient cover. “If you really give a shit about other things, I’ll listen to you,” Stewart says. “But to tell me it’s the view? You have just offended me and my community, because we don’t have that view, and we really care that the offshore wind is coming.” According to Dean, who’s been tracking marine wildlife deaths for nearly 50 years, the sudden explosion of sea-life advocates has been unusual. In 2013, when 150 bottlenose dolphins washed up, “Nobody said anything about it,” she says. “It seems to be very political.”
The response from the anti-wind groups is that it’s wind supporters who’ve been bought off. Dean, despite remaining neutral, has heard that allegation so frequently that she’s started keeping the Stranding Center’s financial records at the front desk for anyone to inspect. As part of their contracts, Orsted and Shell-EDF have agreed to fund $26 million in scientific research and monitoring of the turbines. To opponents, though, that’s far closer to bribery than a sign of goodwill.
The fundamental problem — as seems to be the case in all of America these days — is a lack of agreement on the facts. For all their emphasis on independent research and the “real truth,” offshore wind opponents have some trouble with basic facts themselves. The Protect Our Coast website shows a gigantic whale washed up on a beach, with ominous turbines in the background. It’s photoshopped. The nonprofit has also touted an anti-wind petition with more than 500,000 “NJ voter signatures.” In reality, it’s a Change.org petition that can be signed by anyone in the world with an internet connection. “Everybody is entitled to think and behave exactly the way they want to,” says offshore wind supporter Chris Farschon, an engineer with a side gig as a recreational fishing guide. “Now, what does bother me is, a lot of what they say is just not true. Especially all the whale stuff. I’ll tell you right now, that’s absolute garbage.”
The “whale stuff” — it’s worth pausing over. One of the main claims of anti-wind groups is that noise from the construction and operation of turbines could harm whales, particularly the endangered North American right whale, which navigates up and down the East Coast. The loudest part of turbines’ construction — piledriving foundations into the ocean floor — is indeed disruptive, but it couldn’t be causing the current deaths, since it hasn’t happened yet. The wind developers also are required to have trained protected-species observers on their ships during construction, to make sure no marine mammals are nearby; when it comes to the right whale, the piledriving can be timed to when they’re nowhere near the Jersey Shore. As for the turbines’ operation, James Miller, a professor of ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island who specializes in the way sound travels through water, says noise produced by turbines is “very low-level — much less than a ship.” The final claim wind opponents make is that survey work is disorienting whales. The type of sonar used by offshore wind-survey vessels, however, is way less powerful than the kind used for offshore oil and gas; it’s more closely equivalent to what’s used for routine beach replenishment and sand-dredging — something that occurs frequently and has for a long time. Dean points out another hole in this theory, which is that the majority of the whales that have washed up in recent years have been humpbacks, suggesting something may be going on specifically in that species. If sonar were truly causing harm, Dean says, “It would be all kinds of animals coming up. But we’re not seeing it.”
This doesn’t satisfy the wind opponents, partly due to a seemingly intractable contradiction: Even as they demand proof whales aren’t being affected by sonar, they harbor a profound distrust of the scientific community — the people qualified to offer such proof. “Just like the opioid crisis or any other thing, they buy their science,” Suzanne Moore, a board member of the anti-wind nonprofit Defend Brigantine Beach, says of the wind developers.
In place of established experts, turbine opponents have proposed running their own experiments. “What if there was a 90-day wind project pause and whales kept washing up, or no whales washed up?” Michael Donohue, an attorney representing Cape May County in some of its wind-related litigation, mused at a community meeting in March. “That would be very persuasive evidence of whether wind survey operations are impacting the whales.” Whether it would be persuasive to those who understand independent variables and scientific controls is uncertain.
One theory that never seems to get much purchase among the anti-wind crowd is that climate change could be partially to blame, even though scientists have found that rising ocean temperatures affect where whales feed and can lead them to spend more time in places with high levels of boat traffic and commercial fishing activity. When I asked the Protect Our Coast people for proof that surveys were killing whales, Serowatka handed me a graph compiled by a guy named Mike Dean, who describes himself online as an “independent researcher” and has talked about offshore wind and whales on Fox News. The graph showed whale deaths over time on the x-axis, with a line tracing the amount of offshore wind-survey work over the same span. The further you went across the x-axis, the more whale deaths the graph showed, which conveniently corresponded with a spike in survey activities.
The only problem was that the x-axis didn’t show whale deaths by date; it showed cumulative whale deaths — a neat way of making a graph look like it’s showing linear growth when in fact it’s constant. When I pointed this out to Serowatka, she looked puzzled, then said, “Well, we are not marine biologists.”
For most of the offshore wind opposition, the future of New Jersey’s coastline is framed in the conditional: If the turbines are built. Most of their attention, understandably, is on the ocean right in front of them. Sixty miles inland, however, near the mouth of the Delaware River in Salem County, a gigantic offshore wind construction project is already underway. The setting: the Salem nuclear power plant, with its three bulbous concrete reactors, plus a cooling tower arching 500 feet in the air. This is the largest nuclear power plant in the Northeast, generating more than 3,000 megawatts of power, and it’s where New Jersey has staked its claim as a dominant player in the nascent offshore wind industry.
Wind turbines are exceptionally complicated pieces of machinery. They’re also exceptionally heavy, weighing upwards of 750 tons. When it comes time for installation, the turbine towers are shipped upright; because they’re so tall, the boats carrying them can’t fit under most bridges and have to dock on the ocean side, which eliminates most existing ports in the country. This is where the idea for the New Jersey Wind Port comes in. Tim Sullivan, head of the state’s Economic Development Authority, describes the project as the first American infrastructure that’s “built from the ground up with wind in mind.”
Currently, most wind turbine components are manufactured in Europe and shipped across the Atlantic, to be assembled on land and then installed in the water. The hope for the wind port is that it will eventually serve not just as a site for turbine assembly, but as one for manufacturing — and not just for New Jersey’s offshore wind projects, but for those up and down the East Coast. (The state’s central location affords it a key competitive advantage.) The project has been progressing at turbocharged speed: Governor Phil Murphy announced plans to build it in 2020, and construction is now well underway. Phase one of the seven-year project is due to be complete in 2024, just in time to assemble the turbines for Ocean Wind 1.
On a windy, overcast day in the summer, I visited the soon-to-be port. Vapor billowed from the nuclear cooling tower in the background: the old generation of renewable power looming over the new. The main business of construction at the wind port involves a series of engineering tricks with dirt. The ground along the Delaware River is silty and weak, and it needs to be strengthened to support the weight of the turbines. Everywhere you looked at the construction site, there were mounds and plateaus of dirt, like a miniature Sahara Desert. The dirt had been dredged from the river, and it was piled up so it would drain and compress onto itself. Meanwhile, near the bank of the river, construction workers were preparing one of the sites where the turbines would be assembled, dropping 110-foot-tall, 50-ton concrete piles into the riverbed and placing layer upon layer of rebar on top. By the time construction for this first section of the port is complete, workers will have built something beautifully, deceptively simple: a flat surface.
All this construction is being performed by union labor, which is one reason the Murphy administration is so excited about offshore wind. “If we get this right, this is gonna be an industry in which we are talking about producing incredibly complex pieces of energy-generation infrastructure in America,” Sullivan says. “We’re talking about tons of jobs.” Think manufacturing, installation, maintenance — all long-term jobs that could last decades. Sullivan says there could be as many as 20,000 new jobs in New Jersey alone. The state, which has already invested more than $500 million in the project, estimates the port will spur a $500 million annual boost to its gross domestic product.
One way to think of the wind port is as a projection of confidence. You don’t build a $500 million manufacturing facility unless you’re reasonably certain manufacturers are going to want to use it. But the calculation has become unexpectedly complicated. According to the latest polling, opposition to offshore wind in New Jersey has grown from 15 percent in 2019 to 40 percent in August, a sign the messaging around whales is having a swift, considerable impact. Then there are the various lawsuits to come from the anti-turbine groups. Orsted announcing its one-year Ocean Wind 1 delay is yet another curveball. Even some anti-wind people aren’t sure how to react. Was this a sign their agitation was working, or was it a strategic retreat — a way to trick the opposition into complacency by making them think they’d won?
When you look out at the construction in Salem, though, it becomes harder and harder to shake the feeling that offshore wind is probably inevitable. The wind port is very much a project in the present tense. A crane wobbled ever so slightly in the wind as it lifted one of the 50-ton piles. Once the pile was finally upright, it began its slow descent into the floor of the Delaware River below.
Published as “Not On My Beach” in the October 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.