Published February 28. 2014 4:00AM Updated February 28. 2014 3:30PM
Narragansett, R.I. - Allowing offshore wind turbines 3 miles from Block Island would either set Rhode Island on the right environmental path given the realities of climate change and other negative impacts of fossil fuels, or it would be a costly mistake that would degrade the state's precious ocean resources.
So said speakers at a public hearing Thursday of a subcommittee of the state's Coastal Resources Management Council, held at the University of Rhode Island's Bay Campus. The panel is considering whether to give Deepwater Wind permission to locate five 6-megawatt turbines, each 650 feet tall, off the southeast coast of the popular tourist island. The turbines would generate power for the island, which now relies on diesel generators and pays some of the nation's highest utility rates, and send excess power to National Grid through a 22-undersea cable that would come ashore at Scarborough State Beach in Narragansett.
Recommendation in spring
The subcommittee will make a recommendation to the full CRMC this spring, which would then vote whether to give its "assent" to the project, said Chairwoman Ann Maxwell Livingston. It is one of the key regulatory hurdles Deepwater Wind must cross before construction can begin. Both the Deepwater project and the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts are vying to become the nation's first offshore wind farm.
Of the 28 speakers at the hearing, 15 spoke in favor of the project and 13 were against. At a hearing Monday on Block Island, 18 speakers supported the project, 12 were opposed and two took neither side. About 70 people attended Thursday's hearing, while the session on Block Island drew about 100.
"People often say, not in my back yard. I say, please, yes, do develop the Deepwater Wind project in what is literally my back yard," said Judith Gray, a retired meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who lives on Block Island about 400 yards from the bluff that overlooks the site where the turbines would be built. Gray said that while working with NOAA in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez and BP-Gulf of Mexico oil spills, she saw first-hand that the damage done by fossil fuels "far exceeds the dangers associated with wind power."
Meg Rogers of Narragansett, however, said the project would amount to "the industrialization of our oceans." The turbine construction would harm fish stocks, she said, and the huge blades would "shred" many migratory birds that stop over on Block Island, which lies along the North Atlantic Flyway.
"I implore the CRMC to preserve Rhode Island's coastal integrity and heritage," she said.
Another Narragansett resident, Town Councilor Matthew Mannix, said he decided against the project after researching it when the council was asked to grant Deepwater an easement to bring its cable across the town beach. After the council rejected the proposal, Deepwater reached an agreement with the state to use state beach property instead.
"If you're dragging out hundreds of acres of Block Island Sound (for the turbine platforms and the cable), you can't tell me that's not going to have a negative impact on our fishing industry," he said.
Among Block Island residents at the hearing was Rick Lysik, owner of the Club Soda restaurant. His biggest expense, he said, is electricity, more than what he pays for labor or supplies.
'No nuclear fallout'
"The risk-reward equation is easy to figure. There will be no nuclear fallout or burning water wells," he said, referring to the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster and the hazards of natural gas fracking. "I want to be able to say to my children and grandchildren that we took the challenge to be first."
Tom Risom, who spends his summers on the island and the rest of the year in Old Lyme, noted that Deepwater is characterizing this as a pilot project that will pave the way for larger off-shore wind farms along the East Coast. There is an urgent need to develop large-scale renewable energy projects that don't contribute to climate change, he said.
"This is a demonstration project that will let us move forward to see how this works," said Risom, an engineer at Electric Boat. "Anything we can do to slow down global warming we need to do."
Others, however, expressed skepticism that the turbines would lower energy costs or provide any other benefits to the island or the state.
"This project will benefit only a private company and Wall Street investors and overseas contractors," said Robert Shields of Narragansett, chairman of an opposition group called Deepwater Resistance. He said the project should be scaled back to two turbines, and that Deepwater should be required to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement and provide assurances about the viability of the technology.
Two Westerly residents spoke in opposition. Peter Bonk argued that the project is "totally unnecessary" because a cheaper source of renewable energy is available from Hydro-Quebec, while Harry Staley, chairman of the advocacy group Rhode Island Taxpayers, said the CRMC should enlist an independent consultant to vet the project.
"We're rushing into a decision of monumental importance without hearing the other side of the story," said Staley, who said he is opposed.
Committee member Grover Fugate took exception to that characterization.
"We started this process in 2007," he said. "This has not been a rush to judgment."
Spoiling the view
Block Island resident George Henault said the turbines would spoil the "special place" he calls home. He accepts that electricity, produce and just about everything else there costs more than elsewhere, he said.
"It's worth it because we have not a single traffic light, no billboards and no golden arches," he said. He held up a large photo of the view of the ocean from his porch, then covered the picture with black paper to represent the island's dark night skies.
"Both images are very important to me," he said.
Two speakers from the Rhode Island chapter of the Sierra Club spoke in favor, as did Tricia Jedele, vice president and director of advocacy at the Conservation Law Foundation's Providence office.
Replacing Block Island's current power supply with wind energy, she said, would remove the toxic emissions from its diesel generators that can cause asthma and other respiratory illnesses. The foundation has worked with Deepwater to reduce environmental impacts, she said, and those that remain "will not be significant."
Point Judith fisherman Michael Marchetti said he was "leery" of the project at first, but has come to believe that the impacts on fishing grounds will be "minimally invasive."
Other supporters included Doug Harris, deputy tribal historic preservation officer for the Narragansett tribe; Roy Coulombe of the Ironworkers Local 37; and Michael Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building Trades, an AFL-CIO affiliate.
"It's very seldom that we have something in common with our friends at the Sierra Club," he said, prompting laughter from the audience. Both Coulombe and Sabitoni said the project would bring jobs along with clean energy to the state.
Ann Nichols of the Green Hill section of South Kingston described how the beach near her home is shrinking as sea levels rise.
During a walk there one recent morning, she said, she noticed the strong winds blowing offshore and imagined seeing wind turbines in the distance.
"Someday, maybe I'll look out and see the whole harbor filled with wind turbines," she said. "I would be so proud of Rhode Island if we did that."