PROVIDENCE – State coastal regulators approved a vital certification for the South Fork Wind Farm on Wednesday, a decision that pushes the second major offshore wind project proposed in the United States one step closer to reality.
The vote by the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council in favor of the wind farm was made over the objections of fishermen, who argued that a mitigation package agreed to with developers Ørsted and Eversource would fall well short of adequately compensating them for losses caused by the installation and operation of the project’s 12 turbines.
Certification that the wind farm is consistent with state coastal policies also came despite concerns raised by Save The Bay and others about the council’s permitting process for the wind farm, which would be built in an area called Cox Ledge in Rhode Island Sound that is home to a rich diversity of fish, including species of tuna and Atlantic cod.
“If the council certifies the project as consistent, it will make a mockery of the process,” Michael Jarbeau, baykeeper with the environmental group, said before the council vote. “This might be the correct project, but it is certainly not the correct location.”
He quoted from an analysis from the council’s own staff that described the project site as “one of the worst possible locations within Rhode Island Sound” for the wind farm.
“We agree,” Jarbeau said. “While we understand there are risks of habitat loss to meet wind energy goals, this project will disrupt some of the most valuable habitat in Rhode Island Sound.”
Despite their findings, council staff recommended approval of the wind farm, with the final mitigation package coming after meeting one last time with representatives of Ørsted and Eversource and a fishermen’s board that advises the council on offshore energy development.
In the wake of that meeting on Tuesday, staff retained one key part of the previous proposal: a reduction in the number of the project’s turbines from 15 to 12 that would be made possible by the developers’ use of more powerful turbines.
But they revised the other main piece, recommending that instead of creating a compensation fund that could gradually reach a value of $12 million over 30 years, the developers make a one-time upfront payment of $5.2 million to the fishermen. Council executive director Jeff Willis said the lower figure is the net present value of the higher number.
“Nothing has changed in terms of the compensation number,” he said. “It’s just how it’s disbursed.”
Council staff recommended the money be paid into the same trust overseen by fishermen into which Vineyard Wind, the first big offshore wind farm to go through the Rhode Island and federal permitting processes, is set to put compensation money. But in its 5-to-2 vote, the council went against the recommendation and acceded to a request from the developers that the money go into a separate fund and that it would be disbursed subject to a claims process.
Whether the money would be enough to cover impacts on the fishing industry – including lost access to fishing grounds and fish being driven away from those grounds by construction noise – is uncertain. The Fishermen’s Advisory Board and the developers have come up with different estimates for fishing revenues from the project area that range from $15 million to $40 million over the life of the wind farm.
The fishermen’s board said it will face a total loss during the eight-month construction period and a 50% to 80% loss during the wind farm’s operation. But, said council deputy director James Boyd, with no large offshore wind farms in operation in America, he and other staff didn’t have a solid reference point to judge the projected losses.
“We just don’t know,” he said. “We don’t have any projects in the Northeast with the exception of the Block Island project [a five-turbine array that was the first offshore wind farm in the nation] and two turbines in waters off the coast of Virginia.”
Representatives for the fishermen’s board say that Ørsted and Eversource have misled the council about what had been presented as a $12-million compensation offer. The offer would only climb to that value if the money went untouched for 30 years, said Marisa Desautel, a lawyer for the board.
But leaving the fund alone for three decades would go against its very intent: to compensate fishermen for losses when they can’t get to fishing grounds within the project area during construction and, potentially, operation of the wind farm. And by using the money immediately, fishermen would not only be reducing the size of the fund but also its potential for growth.
“The FAB’s objection to the recommendation is based on the economics,” Desautel said. “$5.2 million does not make the fisheries user groups whole.”
Not every fisherman is critical of the wind farm. Dave Monti, a charter boat captain who is vice chairman of the Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Council, said that he expects the reef effect from the turbines’ foundations to attract more fish to the project area. The project will also meet larger policy goals, he argued.
“The fishing industry … needs the renewable energy industry to stem the tide of climate change impacts,” he told the council.
Business groups and construction unions also testified in support of the project.
“Offshore wind is our future,” said Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council. “We’ve embraced the renewable concept to create the new industry, the future.”
[rest of article available at source]