Local fishermen are concerned that the state’s push to develop wind farms and wave generators in local waters will take away prime fishing grounds and further erode the declining fishing industry.
And experts in ocean energy research say that of all the places in the world to generate electricity from waves, Rhode Island ranks low on the list.
Their concerns come in the wake of last week’s agreement between Governor Carcieri and representatives from Oceanlinx, an Australian-based company that is proposing to install wave generators off the coast of Block Island and Point Judith.
“My biggest complaint about the projects is that they will create yet another navigational hazard as well as place another piece of trash in the ocean,” said Peter Brodeur, president of the R.I. Lobstermen’s Association. “Although we need alternative energy which isn’t sucking up so many petroleum-based products, you have to ask yourself – at what expense?”
In 2005, Carcieri initiated a statewide push to develop renewable energy projects in an effort to generate 20 percent of the state’s power needs locally. The first phase of the project has proposed two or more wind farms offshore, including an area south of Block Island, by Charlestown and Westerly and off the coast of Newport.
The second phase of the initiative, which entails installing a test wave generator off the coast of Block Island next year and an array of up to 20 generators off Point Judith, was revealed last week during a memorandum of understanding ceremony between Carcieri and Thomas Denniss, founder and chief technical officer of Oceanlinx.
Both projects are in the early planning stages, and no specific sites have been chosen. Nor has the question of funding – both projects would be financed through general revenue bonds – been answered.
Still, fishermen foresee large tracts of prime fishing areas sealed off and potentially hazardous conditions with dozens, if not hundreds of turbines and wave generators dotting Rhode Island’s shores.
“These things will be a menace to navigation – people will be killed with collisions caused by those things,” said Chris Brown, president of the R.I. Commercial Fishermen’s Association. “The benefit after 20 years will be permanent eyesores on the ocean-scape of the Ocean State.”
Brown and others said they wonder how the state can offer to section off portions of local waters and hand a foreign company exclusive access while they struggle to stay afloat. Tough regulations and stiff catch quotas have made access to fishing grounds more valuable than ever.
Richard Fuka, president of the R.I. Fishermen’s Alliance, said that although he supports clean energy and understands that it’s critical for the state to find ways to generate electricity, the loss of fishing grounds will “cause us to rely more on foreign fish” and local harvesters will pay the price.
“We’re going to be dependent on fossil fuels until we really step up to the plate and develop alternative means,” Fuka said. “But it’s extremely important that we don’t just grab the path of least resistance and let an overseas company come in and tell us their fishing industry is similar to ours and that it won’t interfere with our state.”
Fuka said he is extremely suspicious of any claim that fishermen will be able to fish within the wind farms or wave generator fields. He notes that wind projects in Europe and other regions generally maintain a buffer zone of about 1,000 feet from the turbines. Because of the cabling and infrastructure on the seabed that connect the turbines to the main grid on land, draggers who make a living off the coast of Charlestown would be left looking for new areas if projects are developed there.
Another potential problem for the wave project is that the waters off Rhode Island don’t have the same power generation potential as other parts of the world.
Malcolm Spaulding, a professor and director of the Center for Excellence in Ocean Engineering at the University of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Campus, said that compared to other parts of the world, such as the eastern coast of England, Hawaii, southern California and southern Australia, Rhode Island has much less energy stored in its waves.
Because prevailing winds generally flow from west to east, the waves in Rhode Island tend to be much smaller. Here, the power potential for wave generation is about 10 kilowatts per meter of wave height – much lower than the 70 near England, the 100 south of Australia and the 50 to 60 off the Pacific coast of the United States.
Spaulding said the figures were obtained during a research project in 2003.
“On the West Coast you end up with waves that last 10 to 12 seconds that are a couple meters high. On the East Coast, you end up with waves of about 1.1 to 1.2 meters at about 4 seconds. That’s a dramatic difference in a wave environment,” Spaulding said.
Spaulding said the university did a lot of work for Oceanlinx starting in 2000. The company, then-called Energetech, tried to obtain permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the state Coastal Resources Management Council to build a demonstration wave generator that would be tethered to the Point Judith Harbor of Refuge.
After several years of planning and design, the plan eventually stalled for several reasons. Fishermen were furious over the decision to place the test generator within feet of a main passageway used by fishermen. FERC refused to issue a permit because the generator would be collecting money by selling electricity to the grid to offset the project’s costs.
“They weren’t willing to issue a permit for a demonstration. They only issue permits for complete projects,” Spaulding said. “Because Energetech was planning on using some of that revenue to finance the cost of the demonstration project, they were dead in the water.”
Spaulding said that he and other oceanographers and ocean energy experts at the GSO were caught off guard somewhat by the announcement that Oceanlinx would sign a memorandum of understanding with the governor last week.
“The last we knew, there were no plans in the works,” Spaulding said. “We were pretty surprised.”
This comes from the director of the Center of Excellence that is named in the memorandum of understanding as a key partner in the wave project.
But Spaulding note that the wording of the memorandum only state that Oceanlinx would “use the best effort to utilize URI for research projects” and other projects in the country when “reasonable and practicable.”
Spaulding said he wasn’t sure how the center would participate in the wave project and that the governor’s office seems to be leading the way, for now.
“We did a lot of work for them during the first incarnation of the project for the demonstration model by the Harbor of Refuge,” Spaulding said. “We really haven’t heard much from them since.”
By Mark Schieldrop
13 December 2007
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