The country’s smallest state may not have oil, coal or natural gas reserves to power the homes and workplaces of its approximately 1 million residents, but Rhode Island is rich in one natural resource with energy-producing potential – offshore wind.
A proposal from a New York company puts Rhode Island on track to be the first state to host an offshore wind farm.
Allco Renewable Energy Group is interested in erecting test towers at four sites to determine whether the amount, consistency and direction of winds is enough for one or more wind farms comprised of 250 to 350 turbines each.
One of the four sites, all in waters governed by the state, is off Napatree Point near the Watch Hill section of Westerly, while another is off the south shore of Block Island. The other two are off Little Compton, in the eastern part of the state.
Allco announced its interest this fall, following initiatives by the administration of Gov. Donald Carcieri to foster the development of wind power projects that could produce up to 15 percent of the state’s energy needs. In April 2007, the state released a study that identified 11 potential sites.
While offshore wind farms have been producing power at several sites in Europe for more than a decade, in this country local opposition has stalled proposals such as the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts. Allco and other companies have, however, successfully installed land-based wind farms at several sites across the country.
“There are three reasons we’re interested in Rhode Island,” said Bill Fischer, spokesman for the company. “The winds are there. The waters are still relatively shallow, even 3 miles offshore, which is good for construction. And the governor’s commitment to renewable energy.”
Fischer cautioned that the proposal has a long way to go. A key next step will be receiving the state’s permission to erect the test towers – called meteorological masts – at the four sites. These would measure the speed, direction and other characteristics of the winds to determine whether turbines would produce enough power to make the project economically feasible and attract investors.
“You’ve got to be able to assure the investment community that the winds are there,” he said.
The test towers would also help indicate which type of turbine would be best suited to the various sites.
Allco’s preliminary requests have been made with the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council, which regulates activities in state waters, said spokeswoman Laura Ricketson-Dwyer. While the governor has set policies welcoming to wind farms, she said, the state has never permitted a project like this before and must first set some basic standards.
“As an agency, we are in unfamiliar territory,” she said. “We are trying to determine how to permit a wind farm. We’re still in early stages of developing a management plan.”
Wind farms, Fischer said, would not only help the state reduce its output of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels to produce energy. They would also be an economic asset to the state, potentially helping stabilize electricity rates and create jobs. Wind, he noted, is a renewable resource not subject to price fluctuations like oil and natural gas.
“This is about economic development,” he said. “It’s not just green.”
Ricketson-Dwyer said there will be ample opportunity for public input as the review moves forward. The agency will also solicit recommendations from the Coast Guard, commercial shippers and other maritime groups to ensure that navigation, shipping lanes and related issues are taken into account in the siting of wind farms.
Fischer added that the R.I. General Assembly is also expected to consider legislation to create permitting mechanisms for regulation and oversight of renewable energy projects.
By Judy Benson
13 January 2008
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