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PUC won’t reopen cable issue (for now)

The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has no plans to reopen the discussion on Block Island’s need for a standalone electric cable, at least not while Deepwater Wind has a cable included in its project plans.

This is what Senior Legal Counsel at the PUC Cindy Wilson-Frias said in a letter to Town Manager Nancy Dodge on Nov. 8. Wilson-Frias wrote her letter in response to an inquiry by Dodge, who asked, on behalf of the New Shoreham Town Council, whether or not the PUC would investigate the issue of the standalone cable.

Dodge, in her letter, said that the PUC had closed a docket (a term for a matter before the PUC) about this issue in the past because of the Deepwater discussion, but inquired whether or not the PUC would re-open this docket, identified as “Docket 4179.”

Wilson-Frias responded: “A review of the current circumstances shows that because the Deepwater Project appears, by all accounts, to be moving forward, there has been no change in circumstances since the closing of the docket to warrant reopening it [the discussion of a standalone cable]. Thus, the matter is not yet ripe for further review.”

Wilson-Frias continued in her letter: “I am unaware of any public statement by members of the Commission to support reopening Docket No. 4179 at this time… it is simply too early to revisit the question.”

Deepwater Wind’s proposal to install a five-turbine wind farm off the coast of Block Island includes an electric transmission cable connecting the island to the mainland, as well as a separate cable connecting the wind farm to the island. The longer cable would be capable of transmitting wind farm electricity to the mainland via the island, and would also provide for electricity to come from the mainland to the island.

However, opponents of the Deepwater project have argued that the island would be better served by a cable not associated with the Deepwater project.

“The most important question was not asked first,” said island resident Rosemarie Ives, referring to the town’s letter to the PUC. “If you ask the PUC ‘are you going to open a docket for a standalone cable,’ that progression sets it up for a ‘no’ answer… The question should have been, ‘would it be the philosophy of the PUC to socialize the cost of the standalone cable.’”

Ives is referring to the question of who would pay for a standalone cable, and if the cost of the cable would be spread out (“socialized”) among all Rhode Island electricity customers.

Dodge wrote in her Oct. 17 letter to Wilson-Frias: “I am asking that you forward to the members of the Public Utilities Commission our inquiry as to whether they would, at this time, entertain opening a docket that would encompass the issue of a standalone cable for Block Island and the socialization of the cost of that cable. I know that Docket 4179 was closed some time ago and any further discussion was put on hold pending the outcome of the Deepwater demonstration project.”

Dodge’s letter continued: “However, it has come to the Town’s attention that Commission members may have voiced an opinion that a stand alone distribution cable could be ordered under the Commission authority and possibly socialized under the same terms as contemplated by the legislation for the Deepwater project.”

On May 27, 2010, the commission opened docket 4179 “to investigate whether there is a public need to construct a transmission cable line between Block Island and the mainland Rhode Island,” according to PUC minutes from that date.

However, this docket was closed on August 2010, when the PUC approved a purchase power agreement between Deepwater and National Grid for the Block Island wind farm.

The PUC never specifically offered a cable to Block Island in 2010, nor did it come up with a cost for a cable or determine who would pay for it.