NARRAGANSETT – The U. S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has released an assessment of the environmental impacts of wind farms in federal waters off Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and could give notice as early as next month that it is auctioning off leases.
About 30 members of the public turned out for an informational meeting at the University of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Campus on Monday, July 16, to learn more about the leaseholds in the waters above the continental shelf.
It’s the latest move in the long federal permitting process, which began in 2011 when the agency put out a call for interest, which was answered by eight companies, including Deepwater Wind. Deepwater wants to build a utility-scale wind farm in the offshore waters, but is first moving forward with plans to install a smaller wind farm in waters just south of Block Island. For that project, which would see five turbines generating about 30 megawatts of power, the company plans to lay an undersea power cable that would link the island to the mainland power grid in Narragansett, offloading surplus power from the wind farm, since the island is expected to use only about 10 percent of it.
Earlier this month, BOEM released its environmental assessment in a 379-page report that details the environmental and socioeconomic effects of issuing energy leases.
While the assessment is a critical step in moving forward with offering leases, BOEM Director Tommy P. Beaudreau said large-scale wind farms are not on the immediate horizon.
“We’re talking about several years down the road before, in this area, steel would be in the water,” said Beaudreau.
Discussion during the two-hour meeting trended mostly towards support, but concerns about the fishing industry and the cost of decommissioning the turbines did arise.
Deepwater representatives were at the meeting to speak in support of the wind leases, as were reps from Energy Management Inc., the company behind the 130-turbine Cape Wind project proposed for Nantucket Sound, and Fishermen’s Energy, a developer with plans for a wind farm off the New Jersey coast.
“We believe this is a very thorough process we are going through,” said Jeffrey Grybowski, chief administrative officer at Deepwater Wind. “It is important because we don’t have a lot of renewable energy resources in southern New England. We’re not going to be siting a big solar plant any time soon,” said Grybowski.
“Offshore wind is the simple best renewable energy resource in southern New England. It is critically important that we develop it.”
BOEM has not determined whether the waters off southern New England will be considered one zone, equal to one lease, or two, which would allow more leases.
“Frankly, with respect to this area, we are undecided,” said Beaudreau.
The federal agency will continue to solicit public comment until Aug. 2.
Moving forward, BOEM will open a process for companies to bid for the rights to sections of the ocean. The company that wins the lease would not have approval to construct a wind farm. Rather, the company would move forward with site characterization surveys and further site assessment based more closely on the individual company’s plan.
In February, BOEM announced the region would not include the important fish spawning spot Cox’s Ledge, but at least one member of the audience was concerned with the effects a lease could have on the commercial fishing industry.
At issue were also the decommission costs and procedures, once the life cycle of the turbines is exhausted.
”They are definitely questions we need to be thinking about. We need to be thinking about what the approach is,” said Beaudreau.
The current assessment also considered five alternatives that could further reduce ocean space for leasing. The alternatives included plans to protect whale populations and the Gayhead Cliffs on Martha’s Vineyard.
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