It’s time for residents to bring their thoughts and questions to the agencies that will decide whether Deepwater Wind can move forward with its $300 million Block Island Wind Farm off the island’s southeast coast.
The Providence company submitted thousands of pages of documents to state and federal agencies over the past couple of weeks, all of which are available for the public to read on Deepwater’s website. They represent three years and $7 million of research that explores, among other things, the environment and ecology of the two-mile arc of ocean where the turbines would stand, as well as the seafloor along the 17-mile submarine route of the cable that would link it to the mainland.
“There was a small army of specialists and experts who helped us over the last three years,” said Jeff Grybowski, chief administrative officer for Deepwater. “And the conclusion really is that there are no reasons from an environmental perspective why the project can’t be built the way we proposed.”
On Tuesday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened a 45-day comment period. The Corps, which is the lead federal agency for the application and has jurisdiction over environmental and navigational issues, has made preliminary determinations that the project will not have long-term adverse effects on sea life or protected species.
The Corps will decide whether to hold a public hearing based on response to the comment period, said Corps Project Manager Michael Elliott.
“I don’t see any big deal breakers,” said Elliott.
His agency has been working with Deepwater as it moved through the permit process, along with interested groups such as state historic and preservation officials and the Narragansett and Aquinnah tribes.
“Everybody who has a say in it has been involved and has been able to tweak those studies to get the information they need,” he said. “Once they got the go-ahead from the town of Narragansett for the beach landing in mid-September, that was the last piece of it for us.”
If Deepwater wins its permits, the 30-megawatt, five-turbine farm could be operational within two years, by fall of 2014. It is on track to be the first offshore wind farm in the United States.
In addition to linking the tiny Block Island Power Company to the mainland grid, the power transmission line will also contain a fiber optic cable, Deepwater has promised. That could bring both high-speed Internet and better cell service to Block Island, although the details are still to be worked out.
New turbines a windfall?
It’s not the first time the Army Corps has approved a wind farm. Cape Wind, the $2.5 billion, 170-megwatt project off Cape Cod that has been in the works since 2001, already won all its permits, but has dropped out of the spotlight in recent years as it battles an entrenched opposition. Meanwhile, questions about federal tax credits set to expire at the end of this year have raised doubts about the wind industry’s economics in general.
Because Cape Wind was conceived several years before Deepwater, it uses older, 3.6-megawatt turbines that aren’t as efficient as the new, 6-megawatt Siemens turbines that Deepwater plans to use. Cape Wind can’t change its turbines without going through some of the applications again, observed Elliott.
Grybowski said the company is happy with its partnership with Siemens and confident it’s made the right choice by going with the direct-drive turbines, which along with their 15-year warrantees will be the biggest single cost of the project.
The estimated cost of the wind farm itself has risen from $206 million to $250 million, of which at least $20 million is interest and insurance payments and a contingency fund. The transmission cable is expected to cost another $50 million.
But Grybowski says the company isn’t worried by the cost increases. He says long-term models are looking rosy, both for the company and for ratepayers.
“It’s very likely the wind farm will over-perform” its power production forecasts, Grybowski said, because the company expects the turbines to be more efficient than the ones it based its calculations on when hammering out its 20-year power purchase agreement with National Grid in 2009.
Then, the state Public Utilities Commission, which approved the deal, agreed the turbines would operate, on average, at about 40 percent efficiency. If they perform better, Deepwater will split the profit with ratepayers.
“If they operate at 42 percent, then 1 percent is credited to National Grid and ratepayers get that power for free, and we get paid for the other,” Grybowski said.
He declined to give an estimate of just how efficiently the company expects the turbines to operate, but said that based on field assessments, “We feel pretty good it’s going to be higher than that.”
Deepwater will go through a final round of financing once permits are in. Its majority shareholder since 2007 has been investment firm D. E. Shaw, and First Wind, a developer of onshore wind projects, is another investor. The company explored creating a relationship with a big company besides Siemens last winter, Grybowski said, but has backed away from the idea.
“From my perspective, there’s no urgency,” he said. “We don’t need to bring in another equity investor.”
CRMC hearing to come
The state Coastal Resources Management Council, the lead state agency for the project, has also received the voluminous permit application and is expected to open public comment by the end of the month.
It will be the first time the state agency deals with an offshore wind farm application. In 2010, it created the Ocean Special Area Management Plan, or O-SAMP, as an offshore planning tool. Deepwater funded $3.5 million of that effort, which surveyed the ecology, navigation and fishing in 1,500 square miles of Rhode Island waters.
Coastal staff are still reviewing the application to make sure it’s complete, said CRMC spokeswoman Laura Dwyer.
“It’s huge,” she said. “The day that they brought in the volumes, it covered our counter.”
The application will first go to the O-SAMP subcommittee for its Oct. 16 meeting, then to the full council. Dwyer said there’s likely to be an initial public comment period of at least 30 days, although “it might be extended if people request it,” she said.
The application will eventually wind up before the 10-person council, which is now led by Anne Maxwell Livingston, a Jamestown tax lawyer, for vote at an open meeting. That public hearing process is a key difference between the state agency and the Army Corps.
The New Shoreham Town Council has asked CRMC to hold a meeting on Block Island, and Dwyer said the agency will make every effort to oblige.
In 2005, when the Block Island residents were closely watching another issue before the coastal council, the Champlin’s marina expansion, it held a June meeting on the island when, Dwyer said, the boat schedule was easy to work with. Other hearings were at Narragansett Town Hall.
The CRMC hearings will likely cover a broad docket of subjects, including financial models. Last week, company president Chris van Beek said the cost of dismantling the wind farm in 20 years will be about $7.5 million in today’s dollars, and the town has said it wants to have a voice in working out how that money will be set aside. Deepwater has offered to pay for independent consultants for the town on the issue.
The cable, which the company says it expects to sell to National Grid, is expected to last for closer to 50 years and decommissioning costs will likely be much lower.
Deepwater says it expects this final stage of the permitting process to be resolved by early 2013.
Reams of information
Deepwater has posted all the documents for the application on its website, dwwind.com.
There are nine different PDFs that make up its environmental reports, and another 30 appendices that cover subjects from eelgrass beds to avian surveys, and EMF analyses to visual impact and construction drawings.
Among the latter, photo simulations show the turbines, each of which would rise 600 feet above sea level to the highest tip of the turbine blades, standing about a half mile apart in a string that would curve around the island’s Southeast Point.
Preparing the documents “involved dozens of experts such as biologists and ecologists with expertise in avian, marine mammal and fish species and their habitats; terrestrial and marine archaeologists; electrical, civil, structural, acoustic and marine engineers; architects; wetlands scientists; statisticians; and many others,” said the company in a prepared statement.
Grybowski said the company used several dozen experts in all fields as it prepared the documents. One thing of particular interest to birders is the research on avian species in the area, which Deepwater looked at especially hard because bird strikes have been one of the biggest environmental problems for land-based turbines.
“Our general conclusions were that there aren’t a lot of birds off the southeast corner,” he said. “There are many more onshore and off the southwest corner, where the marine habitat is shallow and rocky and where there are more fish and consequently more birds.”
The company did some adjusting as its research came in, he said. For instance, it moved the route of its transmission cable to avoid rocky areas where fish tend to breed, hewing to sandy seafloor where it will also be easier and less expensive to bury the cable.
Give your input
The Corps’ public notice, with more detailed information, can be viewed at www.nae.usace.army.mil/Regulatory/Public%20Notices.
Public comments are due Nov. 19 and can be mailed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New England District, Regulatory Division (ATTN: Michael Elliott), 696 Virginia Road, Concord, MA 01742-2751.
Additional information is available from Elliott at 978-318-8131 or toll free 800-343-4789 or 800-362-4367 (if calling from within Massachusetts) or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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