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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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Ocean City Challenges BPU Authority

WIND FARM FILE PHOTO.png

By Vince Conti

OCEAN CITY – In July 2021, Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation that denied local towns the ability to make the final decision on underground high-voltage transmission lines that traverse their community from offshore wind farms. The new law gave the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) the authority to override local decisions in situations where the offshore wind farm developer has met certain criteria. 
The legislation was sponsored by Stephen Sweeney when he was still New Jersey Senate President.  “We’re not going to let NIMBYism shut this down,” Sweeney said, using a term often seen in controversies over the location of affordable housing. NIMBYism stands for “Not in My Backyard.” 
Ocean City is getting ready to challenge a BPU decision that marks the first time that the board has used its new power under the state statute. In September, the BPU gave its approval to a plan to run transmission lines from the planned Ocean Wind I wind farm through Ocean City streets as part of a route to deliver the wind energy to an electrical grid linkup location in Beesley’s Point. 
Public hearings on this had been held in May, but no special notice was given that the issue would be on the agenda for the Sept. 28 BPU meeting. The BPU voted unanimously in favor of Ocean Wind’s petition. A video of the meeting is available on YouTube. 
At a public hearing Sept. 29, the BPU began its consideration of another appeal from Ocean Wind LLC regarding the request from the wind farm developer that the BPU again overrule a local elected governing body, this time the Cape May County Board of Commissioners. That decision has not yet been made, but it is hard to see an outcome different from the one concerning Ocean City’s governing body.
While the controversy raged over the transmission cables, Murphy upped the ante on the project by issuing Executive Order 307. Murphy’s order removed the previous state goal of 7,500 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2035 and replaced it with one for 11,000 megawatts by 2040. 
In the same order, the Governor charged the BPU to undertake a study of the “feasibility and benefits of further increasing the goal.” This charge came as the BPU was considering the arguments from Ocean City and Cape May County concerning the cable route, arguments an Ocean Wind LLC spokesperson reminded the board could interfere with or delay the scheduled production of energy from the wind farm by 2024. 
The BPU will hold another public hearing on Nov. 10 to take oral arguments in the petition of Ocean Wind I to overrule the objections of the county commissioners to the cable route through county land. 
Just days later on Nov. 14 Ocean City will play host to a meeting at which Ocean Wind LLC will again hear public comment on the diversion of parcels of land currently part of the state’s Green Acres program for use in the running of its transmission cables. With the earlier PBU decision in favor of the cable route proposed by the wind farm developer, attention now turns to the Department of Environmental Protection which must grant approval for the diversion of Green Acres land.  The meeting will be virtual, and the public can participate. Information is available on the Ocean City website.
The conflict over high-voltage cable placement is not limited to Ocean City. Local residents of Wainscott, New York, have challenged another Orsted project called South Fork Wind. They filed a lawsuit in Feb. 2021 against the town board, its superintendent and South Fork Wind LLC. They argue that the town board “acted precipitously and on an ill-informed basis” when granting easements for transmission cables. 
Closer to home, Orsted was led to abandon its plans for its Skipjack Wind Farm in Delaware State Park in 2020, partly due to strong local opposition. The interconnection facility would have had a direct link to offshore wind projects. 
Even sister federal agencies are raising cautions about the speed with which federal and state officials are moving on offshore wind. A letter from the Chief of Protected Species at the National Marine Fisheries Service warns of “population-level effects on an already endangered and stressed species” of right whales. It represents just another instance of building concerns that stress the need for more thoughtful understanding of the potential environmental impact of the rush to wind farm construction. Orsted, among other wind farm developers, has wind farm projects in the off-shore New England space that potentially pose an existential threat to the right whale. 
In New Jersey, the state’s move to overrule local elected bodies is evidence of the dilemma state and national officials face when they try to aggressively advance efforts to fight climate change. How do they construct large clean power projects quickly, without taking the time to build more local public support for them? Should they be moving with such speed using tactics that increase rather than ameliorate local opposition? 
Thoughts? Email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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