Published May 27. 2012 4:00AM Updated May 27. 2012 11:43PM
Block Island, R.I. - The afternoon ferry from Point Judith brought pallets of beer and wine, as workmen applied shiny white paint to restaurant porches and shopkeepers unpacked boxes of T-shirts and jewelry for the start of the summer tourist season.
In the days leading up to Memorial Day weekend, Block Island was being transformed from a quiet, sparsely populated sanctuary of about 750 year-round residents to a summer playground that swells with up to 25,000 people daily, as the ferries from Point Judith double their daily runs and the New London high-speed ferry begins its season.
By all outward appearances, this was the start of another typical summer on Block Island, when serving and coping with vacationers and seasonal residents occupies everyone's agenda, from the local police and the bicycle- and moped-rental shops to the shellfish warden and the keeper of Southeast Lighthouse.
But this season is shaping up to be like no other, because this summer steps will be taken to determine the fate of an offshore wind farm, an issue that has divided island residents.
Deepwater Wind has reached a critical juncture in its four-year-old plan to install five wind turbines in 75-foot deep ocean waters 3 miles from Block Island's southeast shore. Having cleared preliminary environmental and regulatory hurdles and reached an agreement with National Grid, the company is preparing to submit applications in the next few weeks for essential state and federal permits. Those applications will trigger a process of reviews and comment by state and federal agencies, along with public hearings that would give opponents and proponents the chance to voice their views.
"We expect to be in construction by the end of next year, and to have the turbines up by 2014," said Jeffrey Grybowski, Deepwater's chief administrative officer, in an interview in the company's Providence offices, where photographs of an offshore wind farm in Denmark decorate the walls and a model turbine flanks the reception's desk.
"We're in late-stage development of the project, preparing for construction," he said. "We think we will be the first offshore wind farm in the nation. We're moving full speed ahead."
Deepwater was chosen by the state after it identified the Block Island site, in state jurisdictional waters, and another to the north in federal waters as the best for offshore wind farms.
The company is competing with Cape Wind in Massachusetts to be the nation's first offshore wind project. Cape Wind's project, having withstood a decade of high-profile opposition, is the subject of hearings by Massachusetts utility regulators this month.
Setting an example
Among supporters on Block Island, the prospect of hosting the nation's first offshore wind project would be a welcome distinction for a place that prides itself on its conservation ethic, most notably expressed in the 45 percent of island land preserved as wildlife habitat and open space.
"Block Island has the potential to be powered nearly 100 percent by a renewable resource," said Kim Gaffett, a lifelong resident who, as first warden, is the chief elected official of the town of New Shoreham, the municipal entity on Block Island.
"That's very powerful," she said. "We would be a small town from the smallest state setting an example of energy independence. It would be small-scale project that we can learn a lot from for the future of this industry."
At its May 16 meeting, the town council deliberated over a lease agreement Deepwater is seeking to install its transmission cable and other equipment underneath the parking lot of the town beach and across to a substation at the privately owned Block Island Power Co. The company would transmit the electricity generated by the wind farm to its customers.
Deepwater officials estimate the island would consume only 10 percent of the 30 megawatts of power generated. Excess power from the 6-megawatt turbines, which would stand 650 feet tall, would be transmitted via a 22-mile cable to Narragansett, R.I. That cable also would bring power the other way, supplying electricity to Block Island when the turbines blades aren't spinning. Other than during the construction period, neither the turbines nor the cables would interfere with fishing or navigation, company officials said, because there would be no exclusion zone around the structures.
"We see this as a win-win situation, especially with the cable to the mainland, which is sorely needed," said Bill Penn, a member of the island's Electric Utility Task Group and past president of the Block Island Residents Association. He also serves as chairman of the Historic District Commission, which recently OK'd the cable and substation.
The cable, he said, would provide more reliable power to the island - monthly brownouts during the summer aren't unusual - and enable Deepwater to sell the excess power that would make the project economically feasible and help lower the island's electricity rates, some of the highest in the country. The cost of the cable would be shared by ratepayers on Block Island and the mainland through a monthly surcharge.
"The cable has been a topic here for 20 years," said Nancy Dodge, town manager. "We never could afford it on our own. This looks like a very, very good opportunity, so long as we know what we're getting into."
She said the town has spent years looking for alternatives to its energy problem, considering onshore wind, solar panels and other solutions, without success. Applications for a grant to cover the estimated $45 million cost of the undersea cable to the mainland were unsuccessful.
"You can only run the ideas so far," Dodge said. "We need to do something, and it does seem as though this is the one that has legs. It hasn't faltered."
The island gets its power from diesel generators at the Block Island Power Co. property on Ocean Avenue. That requires about 1 million gallons of diesel fuel to be trucked to the island yearly on ferries, and means the price of electricity fluctuates with the price of crude oil.
Barbara MacMullan, vice president and branch manager of The Washington Trust Co. office on the island, said islanders pay about 60 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to an average of 15 to 18 cents on the mainland. In one example, the March utility bill for the town's fire station was $1,024, and some of the island's largest commercial properties have paid up to $40,000 per month in the summer. With the turbines, residential bills would be one-third to one-half the current rates, she said.
"It's a very, very critical issue for Block Island to do something about our electricity rates," said MacMullan, who also serves on the Electric Utility Task Group with Penn, but notes that she runs her own home "off the grid," powering it with solar panels and a small wind turbine. "Our economy is at risk because of the volatility of electricity prices. From an economic point of view, it's a no-brainer for the island. From an environmental point of view, it's a no-brainer. From an aesthetic point of view, you can't make a rational decision."
Like other supporters, MacMullan is quick to point out that diesel generators emit greenhouse gases, require harsh chemicals to filter pollutants from smokestacks and depend on deliveries of diesel fuel that could spill and contaminate the island's only fresh water aquifer. In the minds of supporters like MacMullan and Gaffett, the environmental effects of the island's current power system clearly are worse than what might be caused by five wind turbines.
'Saudi Arabia of offshore wind'
In 2008, the administration of then Gov. Donald Carcieri set a goal that 15 percent of the state's electricity would come from offshore wind, and the state undertook a study that identified the Block Island site and the other, about 20 miles offshore, as the best.
Deepwater Chief Executive Officer Bill Moore believes "that the best sites for onshore wind in the Northeast are largely tapped out, and that the real growth will be in offshore," said Grybowski, the chief administrative officer. "Offshore is the native renewable resource that this part of the country has that can be built on a large scale."
According to a 2010 study by Oceana, an ocean conservation organization, "by investing in offshore wind on the East Coast, rather than offshore oil and gas, Americans would get more energy for less money." The Atlantic coast offers more areas with "outstanding" wind resources in proximity to major metropolitan areas than the Pacific coast, the report noted, calling the East Coast "the Saudi Arabia of offshore wind." The average wind speed at the Block Island site is about 21 mph.
Deepwater is positioning itself to be a major developer of the East's wind resources, with plans to install 150 turbines at the site in federal waters off northern Rhode Island and Massachusetts, as well as large wind farms off the New York and New Jersey coasts. The 150-turbine site would supply power to New England and Long Island via a 98-mile undersea cable, and possibly would include a secondary cable to supply power to Connecticut.
The Block Island plan, Grybowski said, is conceived as a "demonstration project" to show that such projects are feasible and to build support among investors and the public for the larger projects.
Connecticut waters don't have sufficiently strong winds to make a project here feasible, he said, "but Connecticut can benefit from offshore wind by tapping into the projects that will be out there."
Along with high average wind speeds, he noted, the sites selected by Deepwater also offer the advantage of being far enough from shore so that turbines don't intrude into most mainland vistas, dampening objections based on aesthetics.
The Block Island turbines, which would be closer to the nearest shore than the company's other proposed projects, would be visible in two of the iconic vistas from the porkchop-shaped island, on the corner where Southeast Lighthouse and Mohegan Bluffs are located. Simulations on the company's website show that someone standing in front of Southeast Lighthouse could see the turbines on the horizon with the naked eye.
George Mellor, who lives near the lighthouse, is among those islanders who believe the turbines would diminish Block Island's greatest asset, its views.
"Block Island is unique, and I'd just as soon not have these unsightly industrial structures out there, with lights that blink at night," said Mellor, a professor emeritus of physical oceanography at Princeton University who became a full-time resident of the island 14 years ago.
Mellor conducts research in an office next to his home, which features large picture windows that face the turbine site. "It would decrease property values for the people who would have a direct view. These would be huge - as big as a 50-story building. They would detract from what Block Island is."
"It would destroy my tranquil little world here," he said.
Among residents who agree with Mellor are Pat and Tom Doyle, owners of an island bed-and-breakfast. Though the turbines would not be visible from their inn, they said, having them offshore would be contrary to the historic character and natural beauty Block Island works so hard to protect.
"We don't want to compromise our tourism," Pat Doyle said, adding that she and her husband, former Danbury residents who became full-time islanders in 2007, practice energy conservation at their inn and initially supported the wind farm.
Beyond aesthetics, however, the Doyles simply don't believe the project actually will add up to be the solution to the island's energy problems that it claims to be. They fear island leaders have been taken in by the company's slick marketing. After attending hearings in Providence when the project was first proposed and listening to the company's presentations, they came away suspicious.
"Tom and I feel very strongly that we've not only sold out as a community on this, our leaders aren't getting all the details down," Pat Doyle said.
Tom Doyle said that after researching the company's claims, he believes the turbines will bring down energy costs for islanders only temporarily.
"It just doesn't smell right," he said.
The opposition, the Doyles said, has not organized into a formal group, partly because the issue is divisive among islanders, even as two of the island's key players, the Town Council and the Block Island Times newspaper, have been supporters.
"In some places, it was like a personal affront if you disagreed with the paper and the council," Pat Doyle said.
Some stay neutral
Community groups such as the Southeast Lighthouse Foundation have declined to take a formal position on the issue, with members basically agreeing to disagree rather than weaken their organization with a split.
"We're remaining Switzerland," said Lisa Nolan, executive director of the foundation. "There are board members opposed and board members in favor."
In one gauge of opinions about the project, a 2010 survey by the Block Island Residents Association showed that 49 percent of 193 respondents were either strongly or moderately in favor of the Deepwater plan, while 39 percent were either strongly or moderately opposed. Main objections cited were damage to views and property values, along with skepticism about utility rate savings.
Supporters, including Gaffett, the first warden, say there are no objective studies that document that wind turbines have a negative impact on tourism, and that the wind farm might end up being an attraction for people interested in renewable energy. While she appreciates the passion of opponents who want to protect the beauty they came to Block Island to enjoy, she believes the island's current energy system is not sustainable, and there are no better solutions than Deepwater on the horizon.
"This is the project we have," she said. "There's nobody else offering us a cable."
The opponents, she added, "have this view of Block Island as their sanctuary, and I'm very sympathetic to that. We all want to have a place where we can let go of our cares. But Block Island isn't going to last long if we don't figure out these issues."
One of the most vocal opponents has been Rosemary Ives, who spends about four months a year on the island in a cottage owned by her husband and his sister.
"The view from Block Island will never be the same," she wrote in an email. "These five mega turbines, over 500 feet above sea level ... don't belong in a precious natural environment. Turbines are an industrial use and should be in ... industrial areas."
Opponents are also raising questions about the effects that noise and vibration from the turbines would have on the marine environment, as well as whether the intermittent nature of wind power actually would result in a net reduction in the use of fossil fuel.
MacMullan, the bank vice president and project supporter, said she is cautiously optimistic that the turbine plan will become a reality, but noted the company has some significant obstacles ahead. Along with obtaining the federal and state permits, financing also may be an issue. The company has spent about $20 million thus far, and estimates the total cost at $250 million.
"There's still a big open question about their finances," she said.
Originally, the project was structured to take advantage of federal tax incentives for renewable energy projects. One of the two incentives has expired, and the second is slated to expire at the end of this year, though industry lobbyists are pushing for renewal.
"These incentives are critical for the future of the industry," Grybowski said. "However, because the Block Island wind farm is a smaller project, we have committed to make it happen even if the incentives are not in place."
As the project moves forward, MacMullan said, island leaders must proceed with caution to ensure the project doesn't succeed - or fail - at the island's expense.
"Deepwater is not our friend," she said. "They're a business. They want to make money. Their interests are aligned with ours in some ways, but we need to be vigilant and protect the island's interests. It's our responsibility."