‘We had the courage to try’ — Island speaks out again on wind farm

Mon, 07/26/2010 - 1:30pm
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7/22/10 — More than two-dozen Block Island residents spoke about the new wind farm contract at the Public Utilities Commission hearing at the island school Thursday morning.

The PUC will begin formal hearings on the new Power Purchase Agreement between Deepwater Wind and National Grid next week.

While there was virtual agreement among the speakers that the island urgently needed relief from its current electricity rates, there were divergent views about how to get there.

Cooneymus Road resident Mike Hickey said the commission was correct when it rejected the previous contract in March. He said the PUC was also correct to suggest a stand-alone cable to the island minus the wind farm, which he said would cost the state ratepayers “considerably less” than a wind farm and a cable. He suggested that the PUC would never have made the suggestion if it did not foresee a way it could be accomplished financially: “you know Block Island cannot shoulder that alone.” Hickey went on to say that Block Island tourism stood to contribute $7.5 billion to the state economy in the next 20 years, and in return for that, it made sense to ask the state’s ratepayers to help finance a $30 million cable, rather than subsidize an $800 million wind farm project.

David Lewis said that despite all the rhetoric about green energy, views and “thinking globally and acting locally,” to him the project came down to “money.”

Echoing Hickey’s comments, he said it made eminent sense for state ratepayers to fund a stand-alone cable given the island’s economic importance to the state. He also cautioned against anyone claiming to know the level of support for the farm on the island because, “no one really knows for sure.”

Mary Donnelly, an island resident for 52 years, told of the terrible burden put upon year-round residents by utility costs. Her charitable fund — the Mary D. Fund — helped cover many of those bills last winter, she said. She supported the wind farm project as a way to help young residents remain on Block Island and said that view shed issues were of no concern to her, because “If you love Block Island, you’re going to come here anyway.”

Marguerite Donnelly saw the project as a “win-win” for the island, the state and the nation. She said it was too important and rare an opportunity to pass up, and she would like to be able to look back and say, “We had the courage to try.”

Nancy Greenaway also spoke in support, pointing out that the island stood to be part of “the vanguard of an energy revolution.”

Block Island Residents Association President Bill Penn hailed the wind farm as “an economic development project for Rhode Island.” Penn said the farm could serve as “a catalyst for a whole new green industry for Rhode Island,” which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

Terry Mooney, who is running for first warden this fall, spoke out against what he called “illegal manipulation” by the General Assembly and the governor’s office in creating a law that forced the PUC to consider the project again. He called it the “Rhode Island razzle-dazzle,” and compared Deepwater Wind to Enron. He asked the commission to reaffirm its first denial, and to pursue a stand-alone cable.

In his remarks Mooney made reference to the possible influence of lobbyist/attorney Robert Goldberg in Deepwater’s decision-making. However, while Goldberg represented Deepwater as a lobbyist at the early stages of its efforts, the company has long since severed ties with him.

Lisa Ommerle, along with Fred Leeder, Molly Fitzpatrick and Susan Walsh, all spoke in favor of the wind farm on behalf of the year-round workers that often hold many jobs to pay the bills.

Ommerle asked how diesel exhaust comported with the notion of Block Island as one of the “last great places.”

Leeder, who has been off the grid since 1991, said one had “to take a chance to get a reward.” He also said that virtually all his taxi customers have voiced support for the wind farm. “It’s not all about money,” he said.

First Warden Kim Gaffett said that the island should be “grateful” to find itself in its current position.

“How great would it be to have the smallest city in the smallest state leading the country” on offshore wind, Gaffett said.

She defended the new renewable energy law as having been modified to fit new circumstances in the state and the world.

Gaffett also said the project would be a “natural extension of Block Island’s history of environmental activism.” She pointed out that at one time hundreds of boats plied the waters off the island’s south shore. “We had two lighthouses, we were the stumbling block” of the Northeast, she said.

Former First Warden Edith Blane said she could not support the project because of the “intrusive” aids to navigation that would be visible in the night sky. The island’s primary attribute, she said, is “the beauty of the place.” She lamented that the town did not pursue a cable in the 1970s.

Norris Pike said that Block Island had been a “progressive community from the beginning.” He said that to him the economics were secondary and that if it were possible to see the future effects of envrionmnetal degradation on the earth, “we’d all act a heckuva lot faster than we are.”

Whale Swamp Road resident Carroll Hughes called the new renewable law that allowed the second contract “obnoxious.” While he agreed that laws change to fit new circumstances, in his experience such changes were “prospective not retroactive.” He also said the farm would also take public lands without “just compensation.”

Margie Comings said she initially supported the project, but became disenchanted when the General Assembly did “an end-run” around the PUC. She called the contract’s 3.5 percent annual escalator “outrageous,” and said that just a cable wasn’t enough — the island also desperately needed a distribution upgrade.

Bud Comeau was also outraged by the General Assembly’s actions in the aftermath of the PUC’s rejection of the first power contract in March. He said a “perfectly legitimate” decision was “overruled because it was unpopular with the powers-that-be.”

Town Council member Peter Baute said the farm would lead to $1 million in annual electricity savings for the island as a whole, and the town itself would see a savings of $120,000 per year. “Let’s get it going,” he said.

Electric Utility Task Group member Barbara MacMullan offered that group’s estimate that island ratepayers would see a 25- to 35-percent reduction in their bills; residents would see a $60 savings per month, while large commercial customers would see a reduction of $925 per month. Also, the island would be spared the purchase and transportation costs for 1 million gallons of fuel a year. While a stand-alone cable could achieve the same results, MacMullan said, “we don’t see a clear path for that to occur.” In conclusion she urged the commission not to let “the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Rick Lohrer, who has experience in the wind industry, called the project “a gateway.” While he conceded there had been “imperfection in the process,” he said he’d seen first hand how the wind projects “have a real [positive] effect” on communities.

Concluding the testimony was Mohegan Trail resident Rob Gilpin. Referring to the nation’s financial crisis and subsequent federal bailouts, Gilpin questioned, “if there is such a thing as a financial expert.”

He said the Block Island Wind Farm would be “a small sacrifice for our nation,” and would “prove that we have the will to change.”