Rhode Island offshore wind farm likely to be out of sight

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offshore wind energy

By Peter B. Lord, The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Because of stronger winds and a sea floor with fewer obstacles to construction, the most favorable places for wind turbines in Rhode Island coastal waters appear to be far offshore, where the turbines will be all but invisible from the mainland.

That preliminary conclusion by state researchers could be extremely good news for Deepwater Wind, the company selected by the Carcieri administration to construct a $1.5-billion wind farm in Rhode Island’s coastal waters.

Avoiding manmade blemishes on ocean views is important because other potential wind farms, primarily the Cape Wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound, have been criticized in large part because people didn’t want to see them from shore.

That shouldn’t happen to the Rhode Island project, based on presentations to stakeholder groups and, in late April, to two state Senate committees. The waters 15 to 20 miles offshore have the strongest winds and the least quantities of rubble and stone on the seafloor, which would be obstructions to setting turbine foundations.

The conclusions are still very tentative, says Grover Fugate, executive director of the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council. The CRMC is halfway through a two-year study and Fugate emphasized there is much work still to be done. Fishermen say they are active throughout the area, so Fugate said the CRMC is looking for ways to lessen the effects on them. Also pending are studies of birds and marine mammals. Sea lanes heavily traveled by vessels of all sizes also will lessen the area available for turbines.

Despite all of those concerns, Fugate said experts who have analyzed offshore winds conclude that Rhode Island waters, like those of other East Coast states, “are the Saudi Arabia of wind energy.”

Deepwater Wind, the company selected by the state to develop the wind farm, agrees that the studies so far suggest the prime turbine locations will be 15 to 20 miles offshore — “virtually invisible from the mainland,” according to Deepwater spokeswoman Meaghan Wims.

(Deepwater also plans to erect five turbines to directly serve Block Island. Those should go up sooner, Wims said, with construction slated to start next year. They should go up in state waters close to Block Island, where state permitting should go faster than the federal permitting required farther offshore. Little criticism of the turbines has appeared so far among Block Islanders, who pay the highest electric rates in New England.)

If the turbines are built out of sight from the mainland, that should help dampen possible public opposition, but it could also raise new and expensive technical challenges for a turbine developer.

Some perspective is offered by Cape Wind, a company that has spent $40 million since 2001 trying to develop a wind farm in Nantucket Sound, as close as about five miles from shore.

Spokesman Mark Rodgers said objections about the visibility of the farm’s turbines have been “a common thread running through most of the opposition to the project.”

So if the Rhode Island turbines are located out of sight, that will provide definite advantages, he said. But there will be drawbacks, too.

Farther offshore, according to Rodgers, there are disadvantages of rougher weather and longer transmission lines, which will cost more and deliver less energy.

“Out there you are looking at considerable waves,” said Rodgers. “You need to plan for a Category 4 hurricane and that could mean wave heights of 50 to 60 feet.” )Rougher seas also mean fewer days available to construct and maintain the turbines, Rodgers said.

But people tend to focus on the visibility issue, Rodgers said. So there are advantages to avoiding that.

“It’s a tradeoff,” Rodgers said. “That’s how it is in this business. Every site has its pros and cons.”

CRMC chairman Michael Tikoian and Fugate provided an update on the CRMC’s mapping work April 29 to members of the state Senate committees on Government Oversight and Environment and Agriculture.

The CRMC is spending nearly $4 million on the two-year mapping effort with most of the money going to dozens of scientists, engineers and graduate students at the University of Rhode Island.

Rhode Island is the first state in the nation to develop an ocean mapping plan. Fugate said part of the mapping study involves locating and excluding from turbine use navigation lanes, ferry routes, disposal sites for material dredged from the Providence River, cable lines and waters close to shorelines. Also to be avoided are terminal moraines — piles of boulders on the ocean bottom — largely parallel to the shoreline from Long Island to Martha’s Vineyard, including Block Island.

Waters off Sakonnet Point are off limits, Fugate said, because the bottom is solid bedrock, making it difficult to drive pilings for wind turbines. Near-shore waters are no good because they are busy with barge traffic.

J. Michael Lenihan, chair of the Senate’s Government Oversight Committee, said he was impressed with the planning efforts.

But he questioned the relationship between the CRMC’s ocean mapping work and the joint development agreement signed by Governor Carcieri and Deepwater chief executive Christopher Wissemann, making Deepwater the preferred developer for the Rhode Island wind farm. The contract requires Deepwater to reimburse the state for the costs of the ocean mapping work.

Fugate said he wasn’t aware of the reimbursement agreement until the contract was publicly announced. But he said the council’s mapping work was unrelated to the state agreement with Deepwater — it would serve as a guide to any wind farm developer.

Tikoian said that in an effort to maintain a “firewall” between the mapping efforts and the developer, he had not even read the agreement.

The contract calls on the CRMC to make “all reasonable efforts to expedite the [special area management plan] and to obtain all associated necessary federal, state and local government permits and approvals” and calls on the state to advocate for the project with federal and state agencies.

“Is CRMC going to advocate for the developer?” Lenihan asked.

No, said Tikoian.

Lenihan said, “The contract says you will do certain things, but you haven’t even read it.”

Tikoian responded: “We’ve told the governor there must be a firewall between us and any developer, and he has respected that wish. My primary job is to protect the environment. That is why I haven’t read the agreement.”

The state has set up a special Web site to display reports, meeting agendas and documents that pertain to its ocean mapping project. It is at: http://seagrant.gso.uri.edu/oceansamp.

Copyright (c) 2009, The Providence Journal, R.I.

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