Energy Needs and Decision-making on the East Coast
States along the eastern seaboard have embraced offshore wind power. These states have robust energy needs and are exploring mechanisms to supplement historical sources of energy, such as nuclear and coal. Because the continental shelf off the east coast gently slopes into the sea, it offers these states a unique landscape for energy exploration – a space with shallow water far enough from land where turbines can be placed virtually out-of-sight and able to take advantage of areas with strong winds, yet close to large energy hungry cities. This area of the continental shelf, however, already is critical habitat for fish and seabirds, supports fishing and recreation, and includes main shipping arteries for the US. Finding a suitable place for wind farms that minimizes the impact to important wildlife and existing goods and services is no easy task. That is where scientists and expertise at NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) come in.
How NCCOS is Supporting Offshore Spatial Planning
For over 30 years NCCOS and its predecessors have worked with universities, states and other federal partners to package and deliver sound science to coastal managers. NCCOS often synthesizes existing information into maps and assessments to answer specific management questions, uses predictive modeling and other advanced statistical approaches to fill in information gaps, integrates disparate data, and brings together experts to review products. As coastal managers are being asked to do more with fewer data and less money, these specialties are proving invaluable. Specific to energy planning, this expertise assists with balancing conservation and energy development, allaying investment uncertainties, and supporting existing ocean users.
New York’s Challenge: Meeting Energy Priorities while Conserving Habitats
In 2006, the Department of State began offshore planning work to inform the development of amendments to its federally approved Coastal Management Program to better manage human activities that impact coastal and marine ecosystems. Their first priority was to identify critical habitats and resources along their coasts and balance that with the State’s alternative energy priority of siting future offshore wind farms. To do this critical work, they reviewed existing ecological and ocean use information for their planning area in the New York Bight. They faced a challenge though. Some data they knew would be critical for appropriately siting wind farms didn’t yet exist.
The Energy Climate in the rest of U.S.
As New York planned their approach for an amendment to their Coastal Zone Management Program, the President was preparing the National Ocean Policy, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean was talking about how to organize ocean conservation among its five member states, and numerous other federal and state agencies, industries, universities and non-governmental organizations were discussing coastal and marine spatial planning. Even Google was in the mix, outlining a plan to invest millions in building the infrastructure backbone that will carry the power from windmills built in the future to the east coast power grid. It seemed like everyone was interested in planning for alternative energy.
New York Approaches NOAA to Answer Key Energy Planning Questions
In 2009, NCCOS’ Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment (CCMA) was wrapping up an ecological assessment of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and presented their findings at the annual northeast coastal zone managers meeting. Representatives from New York’s Department of State Ocean and Great Lakes Program were in attendance and approached NCCOS afterwards to see if they were interested in doing similar work in New York. The conversations between NCCOS and New York focused on two things: what were the important ecological data gaps New York needed to appropriately site wind farms and how would the research process in New York fit into the federal and regional planning discussions taking place at the same time.
Ultimately, we agreed maps of seabirds, deep-sea corals, and benthic habitats were needed and could be made in the aggressive timeline New York was using for their amendment. Over the next two years, we compiled existing information (instead of undertaking new surveys to keep costs down), applied statistical models to available data and developed continuous distribution maps for these key resources. These maps can be difficult to make, because it is common to have sparse data in offshore environments. Unlike resources on land, many offshore resources are not easily seen and can be very expensive to survey. Think about the logistical differences between measuring the abundance of a certain tree in a forest versus a deep-sea coral hundreds of meters below the sea surface. But NCCOS has had a lot of experience working with sparse data.
Since we were making predictions at relatively fine spatial scales, we knew that understanding the certainty behind predictions was an important part of the work. Consequently, in addition to providing continuous predictions of abundance or habitat variables, we also provided continuous maps of the certainty of predictions. That way, resource managers could have information over their entire planning area, even in places where there weren’t any surveys, and they would know how certain the predictions were.
The Fruits of Our Labor
This month, NOAA and New York’s Department of State announced the availability of the NOAA Report titled, “A Biogeographic Assessment of Seabirds, Deep Sea Corals and Ocean Habitats of the New York Bight: Science to Support Offshore Spatial Planning.” The report conceived of and developed in partnership with New York’s Department of State as well as other expert scientists, and is a compilation of new maps and spatial assessments for seabirds, bathymetry, surficial sediments, deep-sea corals, and oceanographic variables.
The report and corresponding digital data will be used to amend New York’s federally approved Coastal Management Program to balance competing demands in their offshore environment. The targeted users of the report and corresponding data were coastal managers in New York, but other State and federal decision-makers, offshore renewable energy development interests and environmental advocates will also find the information useful. In addition, the data and approaches will be useful to regional spatial planning initiatives set up by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council on the Ocean and other regional planning bodies.
NCCOS Continues to Support New York’s Energy Planning Efforts
NCCOS is discussing with New York about continuing this work for the next two years. The objectives of future work would be to add data from new surveys, assess wildlife vulnerabilities to different ocean uses, map new resources, and integrate ecological information to identify unique and vulnerable offshore areas.
BOEM Feedback and Future Work Across the Mid-Atlantic
Recently, NCCOS received feedback that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management found the seabird maps helpful as well. The two agencies are currently partnering to extend the seabird maps originally developed for the New York planning area to the entire Mid–Atlantic region. We plan to complete these regional maps by Spring 2013.
- New York Times Green Blog: New York Maps Viable Offshore Wind Power
- Press Release: NOAA science supports New York’s offshore energy planning
- NOAA Report: A Biogeographic Assessment of Seabirds, Deep Sea Corals and Ocean Habitats of the New York Bight: Science to Support Offshore Spatial Planning
- New York’s Department of State Oceans and Great Lakes Program
- Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment
- National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science
This blog is one in a variety of energy posts designed to provide readers with insight into the work being done by NOAA scientists and their partners in the area of energy planning and management.