On Sept. 4, Block Island made history.
The Block Island Wind Farm, the long-gestating, first-ever offshore wind farm in America received its final major approval on that day from the Army Corps of Engineers.
Bill Penn, a longtime supporter of the project, quoted a posting he had seen on the Block Island Bulletin Board about the announcement that summed up the feelings of those who support the project.
“We’re the smallest community in the smallest state and we’ll have the first wind farm in the country,” Penn said. “A lot of people have put a lot of work into this and I think it’s great. Great for the ratepayers and great for the environment.”
The five-turbine, 30 megawatt wind farm is now on schedule to be completed by the fall of 2016. Although the wind farm has received its permitting, its impact on electric rates for islanders is still being debated, and its reception on Block Island has been decidedly mixed.
The project began during the tenure of former R.I. Gov. Don Carcieri, a Republican. On Sept. 25, 2008, Carcieri announced that Deepwater Wind had been chosen to develop the wind farm. Almost immediately, claims of backroom deals were made, and when the infamous 38 Studios debacle occurred, detractors made analogies between former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s venture and the wind farm. (The Block Island Times reached out to the former governor by email, but he had not responded as of press time.)
On the other side, proponents said that something had to be done about utility costs on Block Island, which some say are the highest in the country.
The six-year process, leading to last week’s approval by the Army Corps of Engineers, involved multiple meetings before the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council, as well as meetings with the Narragansett Town Council, and meetings here on Block Island with the CRMC and before the New Shoreham Town Council. Deepwater Wind prepared reams of documentation for various government agencies.
The meetings were sometimes civil, sometimes contentious. A mainland group, Deepwater Resistance, was formed to block the project. Some island residents showed their support with a “BI4WIND” bumper sticker on their cars. There have been editorials, opinion pieces and letters to the editor over the course of the past few years. During this time, the original manufacturer of the turbines, Siemens, was replaced by a French company, Alstom.
The wind turbines themselves, standing some 582 feet in the air, have been variously described as graceful or as a blight on the pristine waters of the Atlantic.
But much of that is behind the project now, although the Republican winner of Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, told The Block Island Times this summer that, if elected, he would do what he could to stop the project.
“We’ve been approved, and we’re very excited. We’re very committed and focused about moving into the next phase of building the Block Island project,” said Deepwater Wind CEO Jeff Grybowski. Deepwater Wind is the parent company of the Block Island Wind Farm. “As a result of being permitted, we can stay on schedule for 2016. Next summer we will be installing the foundations for the wind farm,” said Grybowski.
The $300 million project will be located three miles off the southeast coast of Block Island. The project will also include a transmission cable, long considered an essential component to stabilizing the energy supply to the island.
With the Army Corps of Engineers permit, the Block Island Wind Farm has now been reviewed and approved by nine state and federal agencies. The other eight agencies are the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Coast Guard, the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council, state Department of Environmental Management and Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.
There are still some smaller issues that need to be resolved. The transmission cable is waiting approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which must grant a right-of-way in federal waters for the transmission cable associated with the wind farm. In its press release, Deepwater Wind said it anticipates receiving that approval in the coming weeks.
Deepwater Wind also must finalize what Grybowski referred to as “administrative steps” with CRMC. The CRMC approved one such step Tuesday, as it unanimously voted to affirm Deepwater Wind’s selection of the American Bureau of Shipping, known as ABS, as its agent to verify the design, construction and operation of the Block Island Wind Farm. The hearing was held in Providence.
ABS will serve as the project’s certified verification agent, or CVA. The state Ocean Special Area Management plan requires CRMC to approve Deepwater Wind’s choice.
“This is a very important project for the industry, and the island,” said Grybowski. “This puts Rhode Island on the cutting edge, and Block Island will play an important role.”
According to Grybowski, construction of the wind farm will require employing several hundred people. He asserts that the alternative energy source will provide substantial savings to consumers.
“It’s notable that the town’s utility task force believes that energy rates will go down considerably, by about 40 percent,” he said.
Grybowski has a response to opponents of the wind farm who feel that the turbines, or what some call windmills, will be an eye sore on the horizon: “It’s a matter of opinion to what people think about how a wind farm looks,” he said. “Some people think that they are very elegant looking.”
That said, opposition to the historic project is still strong.
“There is no information available to the public from the [Army] Corps online,” said resident Rosemarie Ives. “I must read, review, and evaluate the Corps’ document first before deciding what’s next for resistance to the project.”
Grybowski said that the Army Corps has the documentation to prove that the project has been fully permitted.
That won’t change the mind of Bob Shields, a Narragansett resident and Chairman of Deepwater Resistance, who is pursuing litigation against both the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council and Deepwater Wind.
“My attorney and I are very confident that the judge will set aside the dismissal motion, and find that I have standing to bring this case and have a strong case that my civil rights were violated,” said Shields in an email to The Block Island Times. “We at Deepwater Resistance are aware that [the Army Corps of Engineers has] approved the Block Island Wind Farm project last week. I have not seen their written decision yet, so I cannot comment on that. Typically their decisions have a qualifier that a decision will only take effect after all other approvals have been issued and legal challenges have been settled.”
Block Island Grocery owner Mary Jane Balser said she felt like the state has pulled a fast one on island businesses.
“I feel like I’ve been taken advantage of. I really do,” said Balser, whose grocery store is the biggest year-round user of electricity on the island. “After former Rhode Island Gov. (Don) Carcieri approved green energy, things moved so fast. This is like a rock rolling down hill. It’s one of the fastest things that has come through the state.”
“People across the spectrum have had multiple opportunities to speak up about the project,” said Grybowski, when asked about people’s concerns about the project. “We’ve been talking about this project since 2009.”
Island resident Chris Warfel has also been a vocal opponent.
“I believe the only hope now is to pray that the economic reality of much better alternatives sets in, but then, the deck is stacked so much in favor of the Wall Street hedge funds that they will inevitably transfer a half billion dollars from the Rhode Island economy to their investors, and like 38 Studios, we’ll pick up the tab,” said Warfel. “It is such a shameful example of willful ignorance of every level of Rhode Island State and local governments – except Narragansett.”
“There aren’t enough people on the island to oppose it,” Balser added. “This would not happen on Martha’s Vineyard, or Nantucket. We have an absentee population.”
“This project is a great example of American ‘who-do-you-know’,” said Warfel. “Block Island residents received an amazing abundance of misinformation regarding environmental, economic and visual impact from the State, the Town Council, the Town Government, its ‘expert’ consultants, and of course not the least, Deepwater Wind.”
“It’s a tax for life,” Balser said. “I doubt the life expectancy of a windmill will be more than 15 years. The cost is only going to escalate. There are so many unknowns to it.”
“It has been a long and frustrating undertaking,” said resident Maggie Delia, who opposes the project. “It has been a very bad political process from the get-go and a sad day for the future of the Island and the state.”
“A lot of the processes have been gone through and they’re checking off the boxes, but you never know what might come up,” said First Warden Kim Gaffett. “I’m happy about it. I know there are some who aren’t, but I’m thrilled.”
Additional information was provided by Stephanie Turaj of The South County Independent.
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