Letter: Offshore wind has vast benefits for the public

Posted 6/6/23

Editor’s note: The writer submitted this letter to the Portsmouth Town Council in advance of its May 25 workshop on SouthCoast Wind, which he was unable to attend.

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Letter: Offshore wind has vast benefits for the public


Editor’s note: The writer submitted this letter to the Portsmouth Town Council in advance of its May 25 workshop on SouthCoast Wind, which he was unable to attend.

To the editor:

Dear Portsmouth Town Council,

I hope you get to hear a balanced set of voices about this project, and both its upsides and its downsides. I fear that a small group against the project will be far more mobilized, and you will not hear from the general public, who will benefit significantly from the transition of our region and country off of fossil fuels to renewable energy. 

These benefits include sharp reductions in debilitating asthma rates and cardiovascular disease from combustion of fossil fuels, reduced exposures from their mining, drilling and fracking, leaks and explosions from pipelines and tanker trucks and trains, toxic exposures of those living near petroleum refineries, and the hazards of living near oilfield waste dumps. Then there are all the world’s population who will benefit from us not burning millions of gallons of those fossil fuels.

None of those people will be represented in Portsmouth, but they are equally stakeholders in whether (SouthCoast Wind) gets to lay that cable up the Sakonnet River to plug those turbines into our region’s electrical grid.

My lab group at Brown University worked with a top energy transition modeler from the Stockholm Environment Institute to study how the region could do our share to address the impacts of climate change. The results were unmistakable. For currently available and economically feasible technology, offshore wind is simply the only resource we have in New England that is at the scale to meet the increased electricity demand and get off fossil fuels, as the science says is required.

But the turbines have to be plugged into the grid. 

Many cables traverse the oceans. Most are from wind farms to shore, but they also connect islands, countries, even continents. Clearly we need more research, but we always will. Sea life has not collapsed in those many places from laying cables, and we need to act now on climate change; we are decades behind, and sea life is profoundly threatened by warming and acidifying oceans. High-voltage cables are common, increasing in number, and precautions can be taken to make them safe. If cables are buried three feet, the impact on sea life and risks to humans are minimal. 

I want to acknowledge the concerns and fears of those opposed to this cable and these turbines. But this is a mature industry: there are over 5,000 turbines offshore in Europe, and they are installing hundreds more a year. Our region needs offshore wind, and this facility is a key one to get the process started. The renewable electricity it provides will benefit all of us on the New England ISO grid. Full life-cycle analysis from mining to disposal shows that offshore wind is roughly 50 times better than burning “natural” gas for generating electricity. That is a 98 percent reduction in emissions of the gasses that are slowly cooking our planet and destabilizing the support system we rely upon. 

We all need to push for responsible development that minimizes the impacts, but don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. All those people living near coal mines, fracking wells, oil refineries, oilfield waste dumps, pipelines, railroads and highways carrying hazardous petrochemical fuels are not here, but they are equal stakeholders in this decision, as are poor people living in shacks on floodplains across the world. 

J. Timmons Roberts

Brown University

Roberts is Ittleson professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at Brown; executive director of the Climate Social Science Network; director of the Climate and Development Lab; and a member of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. 

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