The National Geographic Photo Ark exhibition installed at the Southampton Arts Center. ANNETTE HINKLE
East Hampton Town officials now say that the much ballyhooed goal of the town reaching 100 percent reliance on renewable energy by the year 2020 is unattainable, since a key element—the South Fork Wind Farm—will not come online till 2022.
Officials said that the goal, which they acknowledged at the time was ambitious, always depended on LIPA’s plans for a major offshore wind farm to be up and running by 2020 to feed power to the South Fork.
But LIPA’s selection process for the proposal it opted to support took nearly a year longer than expected, and the schedule presented by Deepwater Wind last year called for three years of surveys and study to navigate the planning and environmental permitting. As a result, construction would not even start until 2020.
“That is the nature of goals: We set them and we hope to meet them, but sometimes we reach them a little later than we’d originally hoped,” said Gordian Raacke, director of Renewable Energy Long Island and a former member of the town committee that pushed elected officials to make the renewable goal a priority. “There were a number of unfortunate circumstances, but that’s how real life deals with the goals we set.”
While the still-conceptual wind farm’s flood of renewable-sourced energy represented the lion’s share of the envisioned clean electricity supply, a number of other initiatives that were to be part of the town’s push to reduce its carbon footprint fell through.
Two projects that would have constructed solar arrays on town-owned land—one of which, on Bull Path, went through Planning Board review and was issued approvals—fell apart when the company that had won the bid to construct them, SunEdison, went bankrupt.
Other plans have languished, in particular goals of outfitting many town properties with solar panels. Just two of the town’s small buildings have been outfitted with solar panels to date, and while there are smatterings of plans for more, nothing is currently in the process of being designed or reviewed.
“There’s no excuse for why we don’t have more solar panels on public buildings,” Supervisor Larry Cantwell said. “The progress has lagged, and it needs to be accelerated. It’s taken longer than it should.”
Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc said that the town has taken some of the steps it laid out in the plan that accompanied the formalizing of the goal. Those include putting solar panels on the new Land Management Department building and the Montauk police substation. The town has also done energy benchmarking surveys for all its buildings over 1,000 square feet that will help track improvements in efficiency going forward.
As the town advances plans for a new Senior Center on Springs-Fireplace Road and the construction of new town offices at the Town Hall campus, Mr. Van Scoyoc said, he expects solar panels to be a component of both buildings when they are completed.
“But there is more we can do—more we must do,” he said. “We’ve had some other things come up that required a lot of attention, like water quality and coastal resiliency, but the renewable energy is still one of our top priorities.”
Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, who is the liaison to the town’s Energy Sustainability Committee and had led the push for the renewables goal, said that there are still a number of significant projects waiting in the wings. One is a conceptual proposal at the Springs-Fireplace Road Sanitation Department property, which could have solar arrays constructed around the perimeter or mounted atop the roof of some of the buildings, or both. The other project would be rooftop solar panels at the East Hampton Shellfish Hatchery property in Montauk, which was just outfitted with a new roof.
Additionally, contracts held by the bankrupt SunEdison for the solar arrays in Northwest will expire at the end of this year and Ms. Overby said the town will put them out to bid again as soon as possible and hopefully see them back in the planning pipeline in short order.
Other initiatives that had been part of the goal focused on encouraging more homeowners to improve their home’s efficiency through free energy audits and take advantage of private solar or other renewable energy resources like geothermal heating and cooling systems. But that public push relied on a town-directed education and marketing campaign that only just got under way, Mr. Raacke said.
“Even though, yes, windmills need to be the biggest resource to reach 100 percent renewable, green energy regulations were always a big part of the goal,” he said. “And while some energy audits have been done for town facilities, the upgrade work has to be done. If it was, no, it doesn’t account for a lot, a small fraction, but it’s a symbolic step. When the town makes its buildings as energy efficient as possible, it tells the homeowner that they should be doing so also.”
Ms. Overby said that as part of the push to expand solar panel installation townwide, the town needs to focus next on commercial buildings and especially school buildings.
But while solar panels, especially on large buildings like schools, can take big bites out of the amount of energy the region must draw from the grid, at its most ambitious potential Mr. Raacke has calculated that solar would still account for only 11 percent of the overall supply. Energy efficiency and other systemwide improvements might trim another 8 percent, but that leaves 78 percent of the region’s electrical supply to come from a wind farm if the 100 percent goal is to be met by 2022. In other, less ideal situations, the need could be as high as 88 percent.
Whether the wind farm will be able to deliver that level of energy supply to the region is still a topic of some debate. The strongest skeptics have said that by the time the energy from the wind farm is looped into the LIPA grid, the amount that will actually be dispersed on the South Fork could be as little as 3 percent.
The wind farm also still faces substantial environmental hurdles, to say nothing of potential legal challenges, and the date of its coming online is still only a best case scenario. Southampton Town has set its own goal for being 100 percent renewable energy reliant for 2025. But in East Hampton, officials will hold on to their optimism and now say that 2022 is the goal.
“I think, from our end of things, we have to get the solar arrays on town buildings and then work on educating the public,” Ms. Overby said. “It’s a process, and it’s not inexpensive. It’s not going to be easy.”
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