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    Op-Ed
    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    The big picture view on the offshore wind industry in our backyard

    Grab your folding camp chair and bring it to the Thames River waterfront in downtown New London.

    On the shores of this deep-water natural harbor you’ll find plenty of front-row seats on the unfolding energy drama of the 21st century. It’s a sequel to the story told in the 19th and early 20th centuries, all thanks to the harbor’s special relationship to wind and water.

    Whale oil brought in on wind-powered sailing ships first put New London on the map of the world energy economy. A major fuel source in the industrializing society of the day, whale oil lit the streets of Paris, London and other cities at night for the first time.

    By the time whales were becoming scarce from overfishing, the transition to machines powered by crude oil and its derivatives was well underway. Now, a new and even more necessary energy transition is happening away from fossil fuels, with New London’s harbor a main focal point due to proximity to plentiful wind and that same waterway that welcomed cargoes of whale renderings into the global market.

    Easily visible from the main thoroughfares of downtown New London, State Pier has been a main hub of activity for offshore wind farms over the past year, with football field-length towers and blades filling the view as they awaited transport to construction sites amid the strong winds of the Continental Shelf of the Atlantic. The parts and pieces of the South Fork wind farm, now supplying power to Long Island, came out of State Pier, and the Revolution Wind project that will send power to Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island is next in the queue. This week, the pier has been empty of the towers, nacelles and blades yet to arrive for that project, but cranes and a ship ready to take the parts offshore are there, poised for action.

    The Jan. 25 collapse of the First Congregational Church, a whaling era structure probably built in part with whale oil wealth, occurred just as the last of the components were leaving State Pier for South Fork, a bit of synchronicity in our midst. Now the remaining steeples compete for prominence in the cityscape with wind farm equipment.

    Is it possible to overstate the significance of New London having center stage in this emerging industry that will supply local energy from local sources? New Bedford, Mass., the only former whaling port that surpassed New London, is also home to a major staging area for wind farms, but one set off from its downtown, not front-and-center like State Pier.

    Having this up-close perspective daily, southeastern Connecticut residents might become numb to what a unique and historic event they are collectively witnessing. And the messy politics, corruption and financial challenges that have marred the development of State Pier and impeded uninterrupted progress of the wind industry haven’t helped, perhaps making the whole scene indistinguishable from every other fraught public-private enterprise. Real challenges remain to be solved, too, including those that involve commercial fishermen — traditional, major players in these waters. No new industry arises without setbacks and hurdles to overcome along the way. Only the shortsighted would think otherwise.

    Instead, take the long view. Watch the parade up the Thames River of crane-laden barges and ships that might be mistaken for a new kind of giant hydroplane, as they carry racks of turbine blades out to sea. Pause and take in the sights at State Pier. Think what all this means for the future, not just of New London and our region, but of our planet. Don’t let the day-to-day vicissitudes of the moment cloud your vision, lest you miss the momentousness of the happenings right on our doorstep. New London and the state should be proud of the major contribution we’re making to move our country away from the carbon-intensive fuel sources that are harming the Earth and humans along with it.

    Judy Benson is the communications coordinator at Connecticut Sea Grant, based at the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut in Groton, and a former reporter at The Day. Learn more at seagrant.uconn.edu.

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