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Block Islanders still divided on proposed Deepwater Wind project

NEW SHOREHAM – In the five years since a Providence-based developer proposed installing a wind farm off the Block Island coast and laying a cable that would connect to the mainland power grid, the island has only grown more divided about the project, residents said at a public hearing on Monday.

Some speakers at the hearing before a subcommittee of the state Coastal Resources Management Council argued that Deepwater Wind has overstated the economic and environmental benefits of the project and that it would irretrievably mar the pristine views that are so valued on their tiny island off the Rhode Island coast.

Others countered that the proposal would be a boon to residents by drastically reducing their electric rates – which are among the highest in the nation – and weaning them off the highly polluting diesel generators that are currently their only source of power.

But even the supporters conceded that there are tradeoffs that must be made for what could be the first offshore wind farm in the United States.

“Is this the best project? I don’t know,” said Fred Leeder, a longtime island resident. “But we need to start somewhere.”

It was the second public hearing on the Deepwater Wind project held by the CRMC’s Ocean Special Area Management Plan subcommittee and the only one on Block Island during the agency’s permitting process. It was also the first time in four years that a hearing has been held on the island for residents to testify on the full extent of the plan.

About 100 islanders showed up for the afternoon hearing at the Block Island School, though attendance may have been low because it was school vacation week on the island. Thirty-one people spoke on the proposal, with 19 in support and 12 opposed.

Much of the criticism was directed at the potential effects on the viewshed of the five proposed wind turbines that would be installed within three miles of the island’s southeast coast and would rise 589 feet above the water.

“Some things are sacred, that is, they are entitled to reverence and respect. This seascape is sacred,” said David Lewis, whose family’s roots on the island go back to the early 1800s.

“There is a cultural aspect to our shoreline,” said Pat Doyle, a retired educator.

The hearings are crucial for Deepwater. The company must secure approval from the CRMC before it can start installing the turbines and burying submarine cables that would connect the wind farm to the island and the island to the mainland.

A report issued by CRMC staff in January raised no objections to the $300-million project and recommended 17 stipulations for Deepwater to adopt. Deepwater representatives met with CRMC staff last week to discuss some of the concerns. Jeffrey Grybowski, the company’s CEO, said the two sides had reached agreement on all the stipulations.

The staff report does not guarantee approval of the project. After the current hearings before the subcommittee, the project will go before the full voting council of the CRMC.

Despite the uncertainty still surrounding the project, Deepwater has moved forward aggressively with its plans in recent months. Two weeks ago, the company announced a contract with Alstom that will see the French conglomerate manufacture its wind turbines. In an effort to qualify for a federal tax credit that expired last year, Deepwater paid several million dollars for the turbines’ blades in December.

Deepwater has also selected a Norwegian company to supply the ship that will install the six-megawatt turbines that are tied for the largest in the offshore wind industry.

Block Islanders in favor of the wind farm have often pointed to the electric connection to the mainland that the project brings. The island has tried without success to build a standalone cable.

The wind farm would generate enough power for 17,000 homes, much more than Block Island needs. On most days, surplus power would be sent through the cable to the mainland. When the wind isn’t blowing, power would come from the mainland to the island.

Block Islanders have paid as much as 62 cents a kilowatt hour at times in recent years for electricity, about four times the rates on the mainland. Deepwater’s proposal would cut rates by an estimated 40 percent. The town itself would save $600,000 a year, said Henry DuPont, a renewable energy consultant and former town councilman.

Supporters pointed to the savings as one reason to back the project. They also talked of climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants.

Block Island has to become more affordable for life there to remain financially viable, said Kim Gaffett, First Warden of the Town Council.

“It’s economics, and it’s also the environment,” she said.. “We need to embrace … these alternative technologies. I believe it will be beneficial to our town and in the long run to our country as a whole.”

As for the effects on the views from the island, Jules Craynock, a retired oceanographer, had a different opinion than those offered by the objectors.

“I welcome that sight,” he said. “To me this is progress.”

Next step

The third and final hearing before the Coastal Resources Management Council subcommittee will be held Thursday at 10 a.m. in the Coastal Institute Auditorium, University of Rhode Island Bay Campus, South Ferry Road, Narragansett.