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Offshore wind energy plans brighten State Pier's future

A couple of weeks ago President Biden announced a massive effort to develop offshore wind energy projects, seeing them as the key to a “clean energy revolution.”

It is a big change from the Trump administration, which was lukewarm, at best, about supporting renewable energy development and approving offshore wind-power leases. The Biden administration projects this undertaking will employ more than 44,000 workers in offshore wind by 2030 and nearly 33,000 additional jobs in communities supported by offshore wind activity.

I’m excited that hundreds of those jobs stand to be created here in southeastern Connecticut and that the port of New London could be a major player. It is ideally situated. Between the port and the proposed wind fields there are no bridges to impede the shipping of the towering wind-turbine stanchions to their destinations.

But instead of celebrating these possibilities, some critics remain fixated that this is somehow an awful thing. Yes, the Connecticut Port Authority had its scandals — extravagant use of credit cards, pals being hired, purchases that benefited people connected to the authority — but the bigger picture is that this project is good for the city, state, region and the climate.

There have been no arrests, the FBI has not knocked down any doors. Attorney General William Tong’s office is investigating whether rules were violated in the manner in which a consultant, with some connections to the port authority, was hired and compensated. But it is worth noting that Tong’s office deals with civil, not criminal, matters.

Some of the stuff being tossed out to smear the project sounds desperate.

Robert Fromer, an anti any development gadfly, contends that an operation to assemble massive offshore wind turbine parts and place them on large ships for transportation to ocean wind-power fields is not a “water-dependent use” and therefore prohibited under the state’s Coastal Management Act.

No, seriously, that is what his filing claims.

I suppose that is not terribly more outrageous than the assertions that filling the space between the parallel State Pier and the so-called railroad pier — creating a larger, far more robust cargo laydown area — would amount to an environmental disaster.

We’re not talking about filling in the saltwater marsh along Bride Brook in Rocky Neck State Park. The piers are already in a heavily industrialized area. The Thames River and the marine life that depends on it will survive.

But don’t take my word for it.

“It was determined that the environmental impacts associated with the proposed project have been minimized to the greatest extent practicable and have been found to be acceptable,” said Michael Grzywinski, who works for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Land and Water Resource Division, during a hearing on the project.

Then there are the claims that Connecticut is subsidizing the project’s development for the rich and powerful Ørsted and Eversource partnership that wants to use State Pier to serve its offshore wind projects.

Actually, the opposite is true. The private sector is subsidizing redevelopment of a state facility.

Connecticut owns State Pier. Any permanent structures or apparatus constructed there will become property of the state. It will still be a state facility when the wind-turbine projects end, but one that will be able to handle much larger, heavier, and more diverse cargo.

The project's estimated cost has inceased, about double initial estimates. In a meeting with The Day Editorial Board, Gov. Lamont placed the projected investment at around $200 million. David Kooris, chairman of the port authority board, said a specific total will be released when the board approves a construction contract.

The Ørsted/Eversource partnership will be subsidizing at least $70 million of the cost of these improvements. In addition, Gateway, as part of the deal that led to the port authority awarding it the contract as terminal operator, is committed to investing another $30 million in capital improvements, like cranes.

Ørsted/Eversource must pay the Connecticut Port Authority $1.25 million per year during the first two years of construction, and $2 million per year thereafter, for use of the facility it is helping pay to redevelop.

As a result of the planned improvements, a pier that can now handle 1,000 pounds per square foot will become a far larger facility able to handle laydowns of 3,000 pounds per square foot, with a heavy lift pad capable of handling 5,000 pounds per square foot. Along with the heavy-lift onshore cranes, this will significantly increase cargo opportunities. The port will be able to accommodate, for instance, some container shipments, which is not now the case. For the first time roll-on/roll-off ships, designed to carry wheeled cargo, such as cars, trucks and trailers, could dock in New London.

Yes, for a decade or longer, the primary use will be supporting those wind projects. But the port will be busier than it has ever been and its future far brighter. Other cargo shipping can be accommodated during lulls in offshore wind support.

Could Connecticut and the port authority have gotten a better deal? Maybe. But the deal at hand has major corporations contributing towards redeveloping State Pier to make New London a hub for tackling the biggest challenge of our age — climate change — and in the process creating a vastly better port facility.

Not bad.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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