When Deepwater Wind announced more than a year ago that it planned to bring the Block Island power cable ashore near the Narragansett Town Beach, most people assumed that opposition to the project would come from surfers and beach-goers.
But the latest opposition to the cable connection has arisen from Narragansett residents who are concerned about the overhead power lines that will carry the wind-generated power, not the beach connection itself.
Robert Shields of Earles Court wrote a letter to a local newspaper last week, complaining that Deepwater Wind’s 34.5-kilovolt line would travel on overhead utility poles instead of underground, as the developer originally planned.
Shields said he found out about the new plan quite by accident when a friend mentioned in November, that Deepwater Wind’s environmental impact statement was available. An engineer, Shields combed through the document’s diagrams and appendices and was surprised to discover the change.
“We just feel … that it would be unsightly to place a high-voltage line right alongside Narragansett Avenue,” Shields said this week. “I think that there’s some trees there that are mature and I’m concerned they may have to cut them down and place these wires above the roof lines along the street.”
Deepwater Wind officials did not return a call requesting comment.
According to the project’s environmental impact statement released in September, the Narragansett connection would require the enhancement of up to 30 utility poles and the installation of an additional eight. Poles carrying these wires, moreover, would be 10 feet higher than normal utility poles, according to the report.
But a spokesman for National Grid, which will own the lines once they have been constructed, said that they would be no more noticeable than any other utility wires in the neighborhood.
“He seemed to be under the impression that this is going to be a major transmission line,” said David Graves, a spokesman for National Grid. “It’s not.”
The alternative, burying the lines, is prohibitively expensive, Graves said. An underground line can cost $5 million to $6 million a mile to install, and when there’s an outage, it is much more difficult to ascertain where the problem is, he said. These lines will travel 1.7 miles from the beach to the nearest substation, in Wakefield.
“It’s much less expensive to build them, to maintain them, and to repair them if they’re down — all of the above,” Graves said of overhead lines.
But Shields is not alone in his concerns. The town of Narragansett is still negotiating an easement agreement with Deepwater Wind, which the company will need to bring the line from shore to the Town Beach parking lot. Among the issues town officials are discussing with Deepwater is possible disruption to utilities already buried underground near the Town Beach parking lot, including sewer, gas and water lines.
“Aesthetically, we have heard some feedback that they [should] install these lines underground,” said Acting Town Manager Dean Hoxsie. “But obviously that drives up the cost for Deepwater Wind.”
According to the environmental report, Deepwater Wind is proposing bringing the line ashore at the southern tip of the Town Beach’s south lot. From there, it would proceed about 12 feet underground to the intersection of Beach Street and Narragansett Avenue, where it would be brought above ground. The lines would be strung from Narragansett Avenue, in the heart of Narragansett Pier, to Kingstown Road. Slightly north of the iconic Indian statute, they would cross Sprague Field, a recreation area, where they would be connected to a switching station to be built between the Narragansett Senior Center and a Public Works building.
The original proposed switching station had a much larger footprint, and at the request of the town, was downsized, Hoxsie said. “They scaled it way back. We told them they were never going to get it approved.” Now, he said, it’s about the size of a two-car garage.
The switching station would lie within the Narrow River Special Area Management Plan and would require a variance from the state Coastal Resources Management Council because of its proximity to freshwater wetlands, according to the environmental report.
The line then would be reburied near Narragansett Elementary School before connecting to aboveground transmission lines on the other side of Mumford Road.
Shields has gotten the attention of the Narragansett Town Council, and he expects the item to be included on a future agenda.
Councilman Doug McLaughlin said he and other council members share Shields’s concerns and hope to hold a public meeting with Deepwater Wind representatives present.
“I think we’re going to have a special meeting, not a public hearing, where all the citizens can come in and ask pointed questions of the officials and find out what is going on,” he said.
McLaughlin said he, too, has concerns about higher utility poles in residential neighborhoods. He noted that a friend had sent him pictures of a similar project in Plymouth, N.H. “They are absolutely ugly-looking poles. They put them next to the existing poles.”
Shields is hoping that Deepwater Wind will reconsider the decision not to bury the lines, or maybe even choose a different landfall location altogether. The company had considered Charlestown, but decided that the seabed there was too rocky and the distance the cable would have to travel inland would be cost-prohibitive. The Bay Campus also was studied as an alternative.
For Shields, the issue is primarily aesthetic, although he noted some safety concerns. “Normally lines of that voltage are isolated from residential areas and there’s land cleared of brush on either side of the lines,” he said. That would not be possible for poles on the congested Narragansett Avenue or where the lines will traverse the Sprague Field recreational area.
“It would really upset me to have the switchyard to be placed over by the senior center,” he added. “It’s just not the place for it, and to really divide Sprague Park in half… it’s just wrong.”
Shields, who lives more than a mile away from the proposed route, stressed he has no personal ax to grind. “It isn’t a backyard issue, and I think I’m speaking for a lot of people in town.”
He also said that he supports the overall project, which will give Block Island a permanent power connection to the mainland and replace its diesel-generating power plant. Deepwater Wind is planning to install five turbines off the island as a demonstration project, with eventual plans to build wind farms off New England, New York and the mid-Atlantic states.
“I’m not opposed to the wind farm itself,” Shields said. “And I understand the benefits that Block Island will derive from it.”
McLaughlin, too, said he can understand the importance of the project to the island, but emphasized that Narragansett isn’t really deriving any benefit from it. With the town already hosting the ferry and a regional wastewater plant, “it seems like the dumping ground for everybody’s problems.”
He said, though, that he has been impressed by Deepwater Wind so far and would wait to see if a compromise could be worked out. “If we can’t agree, then maybe they’ve got to find somewhere else to come ashore,” he said.