Block Islanders were given an opportunity to participate in a community forum on the future of wind power in Rhode Island last week. Among the panel members in the forum co-sponsored by WRNI (Rhode Island Public Radio) and the Rhode Island Foundation on Thursday, September 8, was former Governor Don Carcieri, who called offshore North Atlantic waters “the Saudi Arabia of Wind.”
About 40 island residents attended remotely from Block Island, through a link from the school. One question forwarded from a local islander was, “When will the first turbine spin?” The reply, from Deepwater representatives: “2013 is the target.” That set a buzz among those who attended here.
Carcieri opened the forum by saying that Rhode Island has a great opportunity to lead the nation and he predicted that building the first Atlantic wind farms off Rhode Island shores will result in thousands of jobs, not just in the construction and maintenance of local projects, but in the operation and maintenance of turbines all up and down the east coast, and in the manufacturing of the components.
The economics of offshore wind energy in Rhode Island was but one of three areas explored at the community forum held at the University of Rhode Island. WRNI News Director Catherine Welch assembled a panel of experts on each of the three topics, which included the environmental impacts and energy rates as well as economics.
Welch, and then the public, pitched questions. The forum was streamed live to the Block Island School. The plan had been to use the school’s computer lab for the interactive streaming, so questions could be sent back live from the Block Island audience, but the streaming in the lab did not function. So the 40 participants moved up to the school’s library, where they viewed the forum on a large flat screen television in air conditioned comfort. Instead of asking questions live, Block Islanders wrote them out and they were sent via email to the forum.
Energy rates are a major concern on Block Island now, but across the state, there is concern about the effect on future mainland rates if all ratepayers are asked to fund a cable to the mainland for a Block Island demonstration wind project. Moderator Welch wondered whether it was “good for business” to increase those rates for companies like Hasbro, which she said has estimated it would cost them $7 million over 7 years. She questioned the wisdom of initiating the project and increasing power costs at a time when cities and towns are struggling with layoffs and their own budgets. Welch also pointed out that both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have power cables to the mainland without any wind power project.
Panelists Jeffrey Grybowski, CAO and Senior VP for Strategy and External Affairs at Deepwater Wind, and Matt Milhouse from National Grid, both emphasized that in the long term, the project will be good for businesses and residents. When the larger wind farm is finished, they predict the cost of power will be comparable to costs today from more traditional power sources.
Carcieri said the cost of fossil fuel could increase way above what it is now in the future. He said Rhode Island is a small state which has no natural gas or oil, and no nuclear power, but it does have wind, and is the first state in the nation to complete a SAMP (Special Area Management Plan) of its ocean. “A few years from now, the cost of wind power will look good,” the former governor declared. Calling comparisons apples to oranges, he pointed out that the cost of wind power will be a fixed cost.
Panelist Grover Fugate, director of the ocean SAMP and executive director of the state’s Coastal Resources Management Program, said there was a need to balance economic and environmental interests to develop guidelines. Now, the panelists and Welch agreed, the SAMP has provided information on where the shipping lanes are, where the right whales migrate, where the fishermen like to go. Welch described the SAMP as “3D mapping.”
Panelist Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save the Bay, said “the SAMP provided baseline data on valuable habitats above the water, on the bottom and in the water column. It identified areas of value for particular species and will be helpful to avoid or minimize environmental impacts.”
Asked by Welch whether there were any discoveries, Fugate replied that the process uncovered boulder fields that are terminal morains from the glaciers, and they are biological habitats. “Any ocean projects… have to avoid them.”
Jennifer McCann, co-principal investigator for the SAMP and Director of Extension Programs at URI, remarked that the inclusion of stakeholders like commercial fishermen and sailors during the SAMP process will help protect Rhode Island’s resources, its special fishing spots and sailing race courses. The Block Island power cable would run north to south and not impact fish migration routes, whereas there is concern that a cable from federal waters to Long island might.
Commenting on the economic impacts, Doug Hales, Assistant Professor in the College of Business Administration at URI, said that a figure of 1,200 jobs would be a conservative estimate if there’s a wind farm off Rhode Island. He cautioned that other countries, such as China, are investing in wind energy because “they do not want to send an army around the world to protect their energy.” Carcieri expanded on that idea, saying, “It is time our nation got serious or we will be left in the dust. We need energy and an energy strategy.”
As for the manufacturing capability, Hale said Quonset is built to service the wind turbine industry. No other port on the East Coast has the capacity to put large, specialized cranes quayside. There are ports for large container ships, but not the cranes. Quonset has a few acres left to do so and 14 acres portside.
In reply to a question about whether the diesels on Block Island will all be shut down, Grybowski replied that is a BIPCO decision, though the expectation is the island would tap into mainland sources.
Many of the residents watching the forum left feeling good about the project. “I think it could be very exciting,” Barbara McDougal said. Jon Emsbo thought the presentation was “very good.” On the other hand, Rosemarie Ives, who has been outspoken about her opposition to the project, said nothing new had been covered and the presentations were one sided.
And Socha Cohen, newly appointed to the Planning Board, thought there was one new point for her, “I didn’t realize the role of jobs,” she said. She still, however, would like to know how much fossil fuel each turbine will save.
Several island residents had been interviewed by WRNI prior to the forum and their remarks had been aired previously in the day. Barbara MacMullan, Ives and Pat Doyle were interviewed on the island by WRNI reporter Bradley Campbell and co-publishers of the Block Island Times, Betty and Fraser Lang, had been interviewed at WRNI by Welch. Both interviews can be found at www.wrni.org. or at www.blockislandtimes.com under Member Stories.