NARRAGANSETT – While the character of the third Coastal Resources Management Council’s Ocean Special Area Management Plan Subcommittee public hearing regarding Deepwater Wind differed from those in the past, the content of the remarks remained the same, with a fairly even split for and against the project.
Block Island resident and retired meteorologist for the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration Judith Gray welcomed the idea of wind turbines off the island’s coast.
“People often say ‘Not in my backyard.’ Well, I live on a point in Block Island where this is my backyard, and say, ‘Please, yes, do develop the Deepwater [Wind] project in what is literally my backyard,” she said.
The project is a step away from other forms of electricity, said Tricia Jedele, the vice president and director of Conservation Law Foundation’s Rhode Island office.
“The Conservation Law Foundation would argue that all electricity is not equal,” she said. “There are specific and tangible environmental benefits associated with renewable energy and this project specifically.”
Michael Sabitoni, president of the R.I. Building and Construction Trades Council, said Deepwater Wind officials had assured him Rhode Island tradesmen and women would benefit from job opportunities, even if the turbines are constructed in France, and the installation company hails from Norway.
What struck a chord most with the opposition was what the subcommittee advised them not to mention: the project’s economics.
Power generated by the Deepwater’s Block Island Wind Farm will cost National Grid Rhode Island 24.4 cents per kilowatt hour for mainland use in the first year, and the proposal includes a built-in escalation cost which will reach 46.9 cents per kWh by the twentieth year. In contrast, National Grid RI plans to purchase power generated from land-based turbines in Maine at 7.8 centers per kWh, without an escalation cost. (This project has not yet been built.)
Chairwoman Anne Livingston Maxwell had prefaced the hearing by saying the project’s finances are not in the purview of CRMC.
But Narragansett Town Councilor Matthew Mannix, and other objectors, repeated the project’s financial implications for mainland ratepayers.
“We are not talking about it. Sir, we’re not talking about the cost,” Livingston said during Mannix’s remarks.
When Mannix continued to reference the project’s finances, committee member Tony Affigne interrupted and said, “We’re not asking you not to talk about cost because we’re not interested. We’re making that restriction because we have no authority to even consider questions of cost when we make our decision. It will simply be discarded. So you’re wasting your own time.”
“It’s interesting you don’t put Deepwater [Wind] through the same rigor that you put the people opposed to this project,” Mannix responded, a comment greeted by scattered applause and mutterings from some members of the audience.
An owner of the Block Island restaurant Club Soda also referenced the project’s economic benefits for New Shoreham’s residents and businesses without interruption at the Feb. 27 hearing.
“When the tourists go home, our bills don’t go away. In the summertime besides actual products we sell, our biggest expense is electricity,” Rick Lysik said. “Think about that. Labor, freight, rent, taxes all cost less than to keep the lights on.”
Instead of looking at the project through a narrow lens, CRMC should look at the whole, as the Narragansett Town Council did when it unanimously rejected landing the project’s transmission cable at Narragansett Town Beach, Mannix said.
“This is Democracy 101. There’s an accountability in looking at the project as a whole. That’s what we’re elected and appointed to do. When this has been looked at objectively, it’s been rejected,” he said referencing the council’s vote and the state Public Utilities Commission’s first vote against the project because of the costs involved. The commission later reversed itself, but only after the General Assembly instructed members to accept the high cost of offshore wind, so long as the costs, pricing, terms and conditions reflected those costs.
The hearing was punctuated by heated exchanges between attendees during lulls in speakers’ remarks. In an effort to hear everyone signed up to speak, subcommittee members repeatedly requested that speakers shorten their remarks, even though there was no time limit established at the start of the hearing, or at the first hearing in Narragansett.
At the end of the nearly four hour hearing, Deepwater Wind legal counsel Robin Main made her final case, saying the company had met CRMC standards by taking “unprecedented steps” as a developer.
“The question that brings all of this work into sharp focus is whether the project before you meets the standards that your council has advised you on and that are embodied in CRMC’s program and in part with the [Ocean Special Area Management Plan],” Main said. “In the case of Deepwater Wind, the answer to the question whether the standards have been met is ‘yes.’”
In a report published prior to the Feb. 4 hearing in Narragansett, CRMC staff said it had no objections to the project, so long as the Council adopted certain stipulations regulating construction. Both sides have since reached agreements on those stipulations, Main said.
Reflecting on the day’s proceedings, Affigne said, “I am troubled by a number of the comments that were made today by speakers regarding the subcommittee’s willingness to hear and listen and understand what was said.”
He requested information about weather-related offshore turbine failures in other parts of the world, a request also made after the Feb. 4 hearing.
The subcommittee is likely to meet publicly sometime this month to vote on its recommendation to the full CRMC, according to Executive Director Grover Fugate.
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