As a candidate for Narragansett Town Council last year, I promised to protect and preserve the town of Narragansett – namely its beaches, local businesses and fishing industry. I did not anticipate that an issue would confront us so soon that would put that promise squarely to the test. That issue was Deepwater Wind LLC’s desire to connect a proposed Block Island wind farm to the Rhode Island mainland by landing the connecting cable at Narragansett Town Beach.
When I was initially informed of Deepwater Wind’s proposal, I expressed my reservations and took up two tasks. First, I pushed to have any discussions between town officials and Deepwater Wind held in public, not in private. Second, I began to independently research Deepwater Wind’s proposal. What I uncovered was a deeply flawed proposal – not just for Narragansett, but also for Rhode Island.
I went back to the beginning – the Report and Order issued in Docket 4111 by the state Public Utilities Commission April 2, 2010. The PUC had the role of reviewing the commercial reasonableness of the project. During that review, Deepwater Wind and its allies were under oath and testified in detail regarding their proposal. In that docket, the PUC ruled Deepwater Wind’s plan was commercially unreasonable because of the increased burden it would impose on ratepayers who would be “paying $390 million more for electricity.” The PUC viewed this exorbitant increase in energy costs as harmful to the state’s taxpayers, residents and existing businesses. The PUC described the project’s benefits, by contrast, as “based on speculation.”
A nexus of big government, big business and political insiders were – and still are – pushing this project very hard. The state’s maligned Economic Development Corporation was a major champion of this project. In Docket 4111, the EDC’s Director of Affairs, Policy and Communications at that time told the PUC the EDC had worked closely with Governor Carcieri’s office and Deepwater Wind to aid in the realization of “the commitments that Deepwater has made to the economic development of a renewable energy business in Rhode Island.” This behavior hardly seems an appropriate role for our state’s EDC, which one would hope would be examining whether Deepwater Wind’s proposal – or any proposal for that matter – was good for the state’s economy. However, the EDC clearly saw its role differently. When asked to weigh in on whether the project was commercially reasonable, the same EDC witness indicated the EDC could not offer a position on that issue, but urged its “expeditious execution.” While arguing for speedy implementation, the EDC witness told the PUC it had conducted no independent economic analysis of the project, but asked the PUC to approve it anyway. When pressed on this lack of analysis, the EDC witness flatly informed the PUC the EDC was “not looking at this question as narrowly as you have asked it.”
The EDC was for this project because the governor and General Assembly were for it. The governor testified in favor of the proposal. The PUC rejected the project. Shortly thereafter, the General Assembly hastily passed legislation changing the definition of “commercially reasonable.” The PUC was then forced to review the project in a second docket – Docket 4185 – with this newly watered-down definition of “commercially reasonable.” The obvious gamesmanship was not lost on the PUC, which stated the following: “Apparently dissatisfied with the Commission’s findings, on June 10, 2010, both chambers of the General Assembly passed amendments” to the original legislation. While the speed with which the General Assembly took up this issue clearly cries out for reform, that is a fight for another day. What becomes clear in Docket 4185 is the reluctance of the commissioners to approve this project, which they did on a 2-1 vote. The dissenting commissioner deserves kudos for her thoughtful argument against approval.
Then Deepwater Wind came to Narragansett’s shores. It asked for easements to dig up our town beach, disrupt our local economy and allow this cable to connect to the mainland for $2.25 million. The long-term impact of this cable connection was unclear at best and dangerous at worst. Either way, it was not quantified. The risks of this project were great and I, along with my fellow town council members, unanimously voted to deny Deepwater Wind’s requests for easements at our August 5 meeting.
Several special interests have advocated for this project since its inception, but the independent research conducted by the grassroots opposition has been much more persuasive. Deepwater Wind, as the PUC noted, has a vested interest in this project, and its investors see a major payoff on the horizon. The people of Narragansett, by contrast, made an independent assessment. That assessment viewed this project as an assault on our beach and harmful to our fragile fishing industry, which is already grossly over-regulated and stymied by bureaucrats.
But the story is far from over. The increased energy rates associated with this project, clearly documented by the PUC, are certain to deal crippling blows to our economy and the state’s ratepayers as a whole. The more I have investigated this project, the more I have realized that this project impacts the whole state. I urge all Rhode Islanders to research this project and resist Deepwater Wind in any way they can. Some will say that the Deepwater Wind project is a “done deal,” as I was told countless times throughout the past few months. I did not listen to that sentiment. Instead, Narragansett’s residents taught us that participatory democracy still works, even when a flawed project may appear to be a “done deal.” I hope that Rhode Island’s residents voice their opposition to Deepwater Wind and show that participatory democracy is alive and well in Rhode Island.
The author is a member of the Narragansett Town Council.