NARRAGANSETT – When Rhode Island commercial fishermen sat down a year ago with offshore wind developers, they say they made it clear that for the sake of navigational safety the minimum spacing of any turbines installed in ocean waters needs to be at least one nautical mile in every direction.
That meeting in July 2018 at the East Farm Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island, in South Kingstown, with Vineyard Wind and Deepwater Wind (which has since become part of Ørsted U.S. Offshore Wind) wasn’t the first time that fishermen say they argued their demands for spacing and for the orientation of wind farms from east to west in a symmetrical grid pattern.
But, with Vineyard Wind and Ørsted both moving forward since then with layouts that fall short of what the fishermen want, it wouldn’t be the last.
Again, on Monday night, in a meeting with Ørsted and its partner Eversource Energy to discuss the companies’ 130-megawatt South Fork Wind Farm, members of the state’s Fishermen’s Advisory Board reiterated what they say is needed to allow them to fish within and transit through the project of up to 15 turbines that would be built in Rhode Island Sound.
“It’s the exact thing we’ve been saying for years,” said Lanny Dellinger, the Newport lobsterman who chairs the board. “That’s the minimal ask for us.”
Representatives of Ørsted were conciliatory – “We’re focused on being a good neighbor,” head of engineering Paul Murphy said – and the meeting was generally cordial, but at the heart of the discussions over the South Fork project is a larger clash between two industries, one legacy and the other nascent, that is so far proving to be intractable.
Put simply, fishermen want to fish where they’ve always fished. If wind turbines are to be installed in fishing grounds, they say the towering structures need to be spaced wider apart to give their boats and gear enough room. The fishermen say the wind farms need to be oriented from east to west because that’s the direction they fish.
Offshore wind developers, however, want to maximize the energy generating capacity of their projects, and the revenues that would come, so they are proposing tighter spacing, which would allow for potentially more turbines in their project areas down the line. They say they are also restricted in how they lay out their wind farms by peculiarities of the ocean bottom and the boulders and rocky formations that get in their way.
The dispute over spacing and orientation has already snarled the regulatory process for the $2.8- billion Vineyard Wind project, with news last month that the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management decided to hold off on a ruling on the company’s application to install up to 84 turbines south of Martha’s Vineyard.
The issues are also now being considered by the U.S. Coast Guard, which, in public comments on the Vineyard Wind project, has expressed support for wider spacing and “fewer (presumably larger) turbines at greater consistently-spaced intervals laid in a symmetrical manner.”
The agency is in the midst of weighing uniform spacing and orientation for all wind farms, to allow boats to more safely get through one project to another, said Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council.
“It will trigger a domino effect through all the wind farms,” he said on Monday.
If the Coast Guard does settle on a single layout for all wind farms, it could mean that Vineyard Wind has to change the design of its wind farm, which is oriented from northwest to southeast and with turbines in places spaced three-quarters of a nautical mile apart.
And Ørsted and Eversource, too, for their South Fork project. The companies say they worked to meet the fishing industry’s needs by laying out the wind farm in three rows running east to west, with one nautical mile (about 1.2 miles) between each row. But the spacing between the turbines going north to south would be smaller, averaging about 0.7 nautical miles, and irregular.
“We’re very aware of [the Coast Guard study],” said Melanie Gearon, manager of permitting and environmental affairs for Ørsted. “We’re watching that very closely.”
The Fishermen’s Advisory Board is looking at the South Fork project as part of the review process by the Coastal Resources Management Council for what’s known as a “consistency certification” for the wind farm. The coastal council and Ørsted are considering delaying the process because of the unanswered questions at the federal level.
“We don’t even know what the rules of the road are,” said Dellinger.
Still, at the meeting, members of the fishermen’s board and others in the room commented extensively on the layout of the South Fork project and its location. They criticized its spacing and some questioned why it would be built in an area near a formation called Cox Ledge that is prime spawning habitat for fish.
“I hear you loud and clear,” Murphy said in response to some of the comments.
“The problem is we’ve been hearing that from day one,” said lobsterman Al Eagles. “Nothing changes.”
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