The nation’s first major offshore wind farm won a key approval from Rhode Island regulators in February, but only after stirring acrimony within the state’s fishing industry.
Now, amid an atmosphere of suspicion created by the 84-turbine Vineyard Wind project, the next offshore wind proposal in line is being considered for a key approval by the state Coastal Resources Management Council. And there are concerns that the project, the South Fork Wind Farm, will lead to more difficulties for commercial fishermen who ply their trade in the waters between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard.
Just like with Vineyard Wind, the potential complications arise from the orientation and spacing of the project’s turbines.
Developers Ørsted U.S. Offshore Wind and Eversource Energy say that they’ve taken into account the concerns of fishermen by configuring the wind farm’s up to 15 turbines from east to west with rows that are 1 nautical mile (about 1.2 miles) apart. The spacing from north to south, however, would be smaller, with either 0.8 or 1 mile between turbines.
And that, according to fishing industry leaders and the Rhode Island coastal council, isn’t good enough. They want minimum spacing of at least 1 nautical mile in all directions to make it easier not only for boats to fish within the wind farm but also to navigate safely through it.
They made their recommendations clear to the developers months ago, yet the companies have made no commitment so far to amend their plans.
“I do have concerns. Hopefully this won’t turn out to be Vineyard Wind, part two,” said Lanny Dellinger, chairman of the Fishermen’s Advisory Board, which advises the Rhode Island coastal council.
The fishermen’s board was set to hold a hearing on the South Fork proposal last Thursday, but its members asked for a continuance to review new information submitted by Ørsted and Eversource. The meeting has yet to be rescheduled.
The South Fork proposal is the second offshore wind project to come before the coastal council seeking what’s known as a “federal consistency certification.” Vineyard Wind was the first. (The five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm, which was built in state waters three years ago and is so far the only offshore wind farm in the nation, was approved through a different process.)
Because both the South Fork and Vineyard Wind projects are located in federal waters, the council does not have final permitting authority over them. That responsibility rests with the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, an arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
But the council does have the power to decide whether the wind farms are consistent with Rhode Island coastal policies, mainly because the projects would impact the state’s fishing industry.
In February, after a months-long dispute with Rhode Island fishermen who complained that the layout of its wind farm – namely the tight spacing of the turbines – would effectively block access to fishing grounds rich in squid, lobster and Jonah crab, Vineyard Wind agreed to a compensation package worth $16.7 million. The coastal council awarded the project a consistency certification following the agreement.
Vineyard Wind is still awaiting final approval from the federal government. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management was expected to make a decision weeks ago on the $2.8-billion proposal, but it has delayed a ruling amid reports of continuing concerns from federal fisheries officials and others. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has expressed support for turbine spacing of 1 nautical mile in all directions. The Coast Guard has also advocated for wider spacing.
The impasse spurred Vineyard Wind to take the unusual step of releasing a public statement last month saying that it is “resolutely committed” to working with the bureau.
“As with any project of this scale and complexity, changes to the schedule are anticipated,” the company said.
Construction, however, must begin soon for Vineyard Wind to qualify for federal tax credits that it has said are crucial to the financial viability of the project.
It was in the midst of the tense negotiations with Vineyard Wind that the South Fork Wind Farm filed its application for a consistency certification last October.
The 130-megawatt project would be located in waters in Rhode Island Sound about 19 miles southeast of Block Island near the underwater geographic formation known as Cox Ledge. It’s the same general area where Ørsted and Eversource are planning the 400-megawatt Revolution Wind Farm that would supply power to Rhode Island through a contract with National Grid.
The developers have a contract to send power from the South Fork Wind Farm to Long Island through a buried transmission line. The project is targeted to come on line in 2022.
Under an extension agreed to by the coastal council and the developers, a decision on the South Fork application is due Oct. 25.
In a January letter that was sent before the two sides agreed to the extension, the council detailed some of its concerns with the project. In the letter, Grover Fugate, executive director of the council, made clear that the layout of the turbines as proposed by Ørsted and Eversource would be an obstacle to approval. He urged the companies to increase the north-south spacing between turbines “to avoid potential adverse impacts.”
“Furthermore, from a risk management perspective it is imperative that wind turbines be installed by all renewable developers throughout southern New England waters in a consistent grid pattern of east-west orientation with a minimum 1 [nautical mile] spacing between turbines to enhance safe navigation and operations of all recreational and commercial vessels,” Fugate wrote.
The letter also points to possible problems with the transmission cable. Because the ocean bottom around Cox Ledge is rocky, there are concerns that the developers won’t be able to bury the line deep enough in the bottom and would instead have to protect it with concrete mats. That could be a problem for trawlers that could snag their nets on the mats. Some of the new data received by the fishermen’s board this week relates to the cable.
The stakes are high, because Cox Ledge is known to be spawning habitat for scallops, lobster and other species.
In interviews, Fugate and Dellinger said that the north-south spacing is important because fishing boats would travel in that direction to head back to port. In bad weather especially, they would need consistent spacing to minimize the chances of hitting a turbine.
Fugate said that the council’s concerns go beyond the South Fork proposal. He said that Ørsted and Eversource are planning to file a permit application with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in August for another, much larger project that it is working on, called Bay State Wind. The 800-megawatt wind farm would be built in waters between the South Fork project and Vineyard Wind.
Fugate has had preliminary discussions with Thomas Brostrom, CEO of Ørsted U.S. Offshore Wind, about the configuration of the Bay State project. Of most concern, Fugate said, is that the turbines in the project also would not be spaced consistently from north to south. Fugate likened the northernmost portion of the project, where turbines would be installed closer together, to a fence.
Eversource vice president Kenneth Bowes said that his company and Ørsted believe that the larger east-west spacing is more critical because boats traditionally fish in that direction in southern New England. The north-south spacing in the wind farm would vary depending on the geology of the sea bed, he said.
As for the cable, he said the companies are confident that they’ll be able to bury it five feet under the ocean floor along most of its length. Concrete mats are a possibility, he acknowledged.
“At this point we think it is a very low percentage that would require that,” Bowes said. “We think with the techniques we have we can minimize that.”
The Block Island Wind Farm was developed by Providence-based Deepwater Wind, which was acquired by Ørsted last fall. Matthew Morrissey, head of New England markets for Ørsted, pointed to the generally positive outreach efforts with that project as evidence that the company can work with fishermen and other users of the ocean.
“It cannot be a situation where one industry injures another as it develops,” he said.
Vineyard Wind’s 84-turbine array and the the Ørsted/Eversource projects are not the only offshore wind proposals in the works off Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Vineyard Wind is planning more phases of development and two other developers – Equinor and Mayflower Wind Energy – have secured leases in the region.
The Rhode Island congressional delegation raised concerns about the pace of development in a letter to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management that was sent after the delays with the Vineyard Wind application came to light.
They reiterated recommendations first made by the Rhode Island coastal council in April that would slow down the permitting process for offshore wind. The recommendations include requiring at least two full years to collect fisheries data before construction starts and requiring developers to set aside funding for fishermen to hire experts to evaluate the impact of wind farms on their businesses.
They also urged the bureau to set up a regional office in Rhode Island to improve communication with fishermen and other ocean users.
“Stakeholder engagement and public participation in the governance of these projects will enable their success and decrease the likelihood that projects will be impeded by avoidable obstacles,” the letter said.
It may be too late for Vineyard Wind on that front, but, says Dellinger, there’s still time for other developers to do better.
“Let’s just slow this down and try to get it right,” he said.