Eye on Fire Island: Wind Farm Work Sails Ahead

Photo the “Liftboat Jill,” taken by Dr. John Anner of Atantique, who spotted offshore of Fire Island in January 2023.

Offshore wind farm construction ships were repeatedly spotted in the Atlantic Ocean off the southern coast of Fire Island in recent months as the first wave of work got underway this winter.

Among the ships Fire Islanders spotted was the “Liftboat Jill,” a distinctive vessel with three 335-foot-tall pipe legs –  taller than the Statue of Liberty – used to jack itself up to 20 feet off the surface of the water when the crew is drilling power transmission cable routes, deploying its marine crane, or performing other work that require stability. The Jill, now back in its home port in Louisiana, was in the area over the offseason in support of South Fork Wind – New York State’s first offshore wind project being built 30 miles southeast of Montauk, with the cable coming ashore in Wainscott.

“Crews … [used] a horizontal directional drilling process to create a pathway and install a conduit for the wind farm’s submarine cable to land [approximately 80 feet] deep beneath the beach,” project representatives said, noting that Jill was in the area for three months from November to January, when it was spotted off FI.

The Jill is one of about 30 ships involved in the project, which will piledrive a dozen 660-foot-tall wind turbines into the ocean floor, powering 70,000 Long Island homes when it goes online as early as this year. The project is one of several planned for off the coast of Long Island. One of which – Sunrise Wind, a 924-megawatt project also planned for 30 miles off Montauk – has its cable slated to come ashore at Smith Point County Park in Shirley on the easternmost end of the barrier beach in 2025.

Not as far along in the process, the wind farm connecting to Fire Island is making progress nonetheless. In April, Eversource and Ørsted – the developers of both South Fork Wind and Sunrise Wind – selected Melville-based Haugland Energy Group LLC for a $200 million contract to install the project’s underground duct bank system for Sunrise Wind’s onshore transmission line. The company performed similar work for South Fork Wind.

“Offshore wind is our nation’s clean energy future, and Suffolk County is now firmly at the forefront of this industry,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

In November, the New York Public Service Commission approved the project’s underground transmission route that will deliver electricity from Sunrise Wind to the LI electrical grid via a 124-mile submarine export cable. The cable will follow an approximately 18-mile route below publicly owned roads and rights-of-way to an interconnection point at the existing Holbrook substation. Onshore construction work is expected to begin later this year.

“We are thrilled to continue our unwavering support for the Sunrise Wind project, a massive offshore wind farm that will power nearly 600,000 homes and create 800 good paying local jobs,” said Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine. “This project will not only provide clean energy to the Town of Brookhaven, but for Suffolk County at-large. With this joint venture, we solidify our commitment to sustainability, renewable energy, and our children’s futures.”

Sunrise Wind will achieve roughly 10% of the state’s offshore wind goal of 9,000 megawatts by 2035, while also bringing $700 million of investment to Suffolk and creating 800 direct jobs and thousands of indirect jobs statewide, officials say. While many tout the environmental benefits of wind energy over the usual fossil fuel power plants, some questions have arisen about the impact of offshore wind.

A spate of whales washing up dead across Long Island, New Jersey and the East Coast – the latest being a humpback whale that died at Robert Moses State Park in May – sparked speculation that the timing of the deaths may coincide with the start of the offshore wind farm work in December, although federal officials have disputed that theory, citing a lack of evidence and experts attributed many of the deaths to ship strikes. A group of environmentalists called for increased whale protections as a result.

“Twenty environmental organizations are calling on our federal leaders to support increased whale monitoring and funding for critical whale protection measures,” Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a Farmingdale-based nonprofit, said in a statement in May. “These asks include a request for $20 million for the Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Event Contingency Fund in this year’s budget as well as measures to ensure whale monitoring data is up-to-date and publicly available, which could help mitigate ship strikes in the future. Groups are also calling for funding for marine mammal response and necropsy efforts.”

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, still supports the wind farms and isn’t convinced there’s a correlation between the whale deaths and offshore work.

“The benefits of a new renewable offshore wind economy keep giving,” she said. “Fighting climate change, providing new job opportunities, and now investing in our communities with new tools for clean water and a healthier way of life.”

What will come next for the offshore wind farm sage unfolding off the coast of Fire Island? Like Gov. Kathy Hochul said while quoting Bob Dylan upon the groundbreaking ceremony for South Fork Wind: “The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.”