On Jones Beach, a new beachhead in the climate war

Hands-on (hand sanitizer included): The pandemic has changed a few things at the Jones Beach Energy & Nature Center, but its core mission remains intact.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

An all-season “net zero” nature and energy educational resource has risen on the climate battle’s front lines.

Less than two years after it was first announced, the Jones Beach Energy & Nature Center has officially opened its doors, offering an informative and entertaining journey through New York’s natural systems – and a glimpse at the state’s ambitious plans to combat climate change.

A few things have changed since the emission-free center – a collaboration of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Long Island Power Authority, the New York Power Authority and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority – was first announced.

For one thing, the price tag – $32.8 million in total – grew considerably since November 2018, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo trumpeted an $18 million partnership between the state and regional agencies.

Locals welcome: Capacity is limited, but the center is still full of life.

And of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped operational procedures at the center, where access to interior exhibits is limited to 25 percent capacity and masks, ready supplies of hand sanitizer and new social-distancing norms all apply.

But with 19 indoor exhibits, 13 exterior exhibits and a host of alternative-energy technologies both on display and in effect, the center – located in the state park’s West End 2 section – is still a unique educational effort that specifically addresses the role of human energy consumption in shaping, and reshaping, natural landscapes.

And it “embodies New York State’s leadership in protecting the environment and promoting renewable energy,” according to the governor, who said the siting of the pioneering educational facility was no accident.

“Long Islanders know firsthand how the devastating effects of climate change and extreme weather are impacting our lives on a daily basis,” Cuomo said. “This center will equip visitors with knowledge to join the fight against climate change and protect our environment for generations to come.”

Among the center’s hands-on (and state-of-the-art computer graphics-heavy) attractions are interactive games, a “sensory playground” and the “Fauna Footprints” path, which highlights a wide variety of animal species populating Jones Beach.

Well seasoned: Summer’s over, but the center is just getting started.

Different interior and exterior galleries dive into a number key energy/environment issues, including the region’s energy-distribution history, the role of conservation in supporting resilient coastlines and the transformation of natural energy sources – wind, for instance – into power for human use.

That last issue expects to play large at the center, which is also sited in close proximity to the ambitious Empire Wind project, which aims to raise an 80,000-acre wind farm in federal waters about 18 miles off of Jones Beach, capable of powering 1 million homes.

That project and others like it – along with this region’s unique energy and climate histories – make Jones Beach “an ideal site for education and reflection on the power of nature,” according to State Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid.

“From the power of the sun, wind and waves to energy infrastructure, shoreline engineering and ecological conservation, Jones Beach is an incredible classroom that can highlight the forces shaping the coastal landscape and the environment,” Kulleseid said in a statement.

And as both an incubator for environmental leadership and an all-season educational resource, the center adds multiple feathers to Nassau County’s cap, according to County Executive Laura Curran, who applauded Albany for bolstering Nassau’s environmental and tourism credentials.

“With raging fires in the West and the most active hurricane season in history, it is clear the timing is right to roll out the Energy and Nature Center at Jones Beach,” Curran added. “I encourage all residents and visitors at Jones Beach to tour the center and learn how Long Island’s energy will be utilized and transformed to advance our historic energy goals that will preserve our clean air, waterways and natural habitat for generations to come.”