BI out of wind farm running By Read Kingsbury

Sat, 11/01/2003 - 6:00am
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Not enough wind, or, at least, consistent wind. Rough seas and a rough ocean bottom. Major shipping traffic. Whales and seals. Insufficient transmission facilities.

These are the reasons the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has dropped a tract of ocean southeast of Block Island from consideration as an alternative for a big wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound.

The Corps, at a public information session Wednesday, Oct. 29, in North Falmouth on Cape Cod, listed six sites it wants evaluated for the wind farm project. One of them was the Horseshoe Shoal, where Cape Wind Associates of Boston and Yarmouthport wants to plant 130 turbines on towers 417 feet high, generating as much as 420 megawatts. The 28-square-mile stretch of towers would extend to within 4 miles of the Cape, 11 miles of Nantucket and 5.5 miles of Martha's Vineyard.

The proposal has aroused both vociferous opposition and support on the Cape and the islands. Groups on both sides, waving their signboards and banners under a gray, spitting sky, picketed the entrance to the seaside resort where the Wednesday meeting was held, and a crowd of almost 200 very intense listeners and speakers filled the room for the presentation.

It was one of the preliminary steps toward the environmental impact statement (EIS) that both the Corps and the state of Massachusetts have said is necessary for the project to go forward. Cape Wind filed its application in late 2001. Pressed for a timetable, Col. Thomas L. Koning, New England district engineer of the Corps, said, "That's a 64-thousand-dollar question. When this began, we thought we might have the EIS draft in January of 2003."

BI site falls short

From public comments and other sources, the Corps had generated a list of 18 possible wind farm sites, including eight on the mainland ranging north to Maine and Vermont, and the rest scattered along the New England coast from Block Island to Portland, Maine.

These sites were weighed, explained Karen Adams, EIS project manager for the Corps, against five criteria:

• Consistent wind power class 4 (wind speeds of more than 15.7 mph at 150 feet up);

• An area sufficient for enough towers and turbines to generate at least 200 megawatts;

• Surplus transmission capacity to carry the energy thus produced to the New England power grid;

• Design limitations (storm wave power, water depth);

• Regulatory and environmental constraints, species protection, etc.

And here's what the Corps' chart of the 24-square-mile Block Island site said:

Wind: Class 3 to 4. (Three sites in Nantucket Sound are rated at 5; two off the south shores of Nantucket have a rating of 6.)

Transmission: No surplus capacity.

Engineering: "Depth 50 feet, reaching depths of over 100 feet relatively quickly, open ocean exposure to south, storm wave heights to 50 feet, major shipping channels, seabed abundance of boulders and rock outcroppings."

Regulatory constraints: "High concentration of humpback whale sightings, harbor seal and/or gray seal winter haul-out location."

In a telephone interview with the Block Island Times, Adams explained that those conditions wouldn't necessarily preclude wind power production off Block Island on a small scale, or when technology improves.

No published standards

The five alternatives to the Horseshoe Shoal site still under evaluation are: Tuckernuck Shoal and Handkerchief Shoal in Nantucket Sound, an open sea site between and south of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, a combination of a site in Buzzard's Bay south of New Bedford and one of the Nantucket shoals, and a mainland site, on the Massachusetts Military Reservation at the west end of Cape Cod.

The Corps has a list of 19 factors for analyzing these sites, ranging from economic to aesthetic to environmental considerations. The difficulty, Adams explained, is that "there are no published industry standards" for an offshore wind farm, so the Corps must examine wind farm experience from California to Europe.

"We will weigh public and private needs; we have to resolve a conflict over use of a natural resource, and we have to understand beneficial and detrimental consequences," Koning said. "Believe me, the Corps does not have a dog in this fight."

Koning said a great deal of information is needed on the various sites, that some of it may exist and that Cape Wind would bear the cost of collecting information not now in hand. "They get the information; we analyze it," he said, in answer to a wind energy advocate who was concerned about the burden on Cape Wind.

Bitter controversy

The Corps presentation was crisp and professional, and so were most of the questions and statements from the audience, although some comments showed the edge of the bitter controversy that the project has aroused.

For example, most of the onshore sites were rejected because they are too small for the project. That was true also of offshore sites in Boston and Portland harbors.

"But the alternates should include groups of smaller scale projects," said Susan Nickerson of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, an opposition group.

"The application asked for a large-scale project and that's what we're responding to," Koning said.

"Have you considered other renewable energy forms?" a Beacon Hill Institute questioner asked.

"Yes," Koning replied, but the technologies of tidal energy, solar energy and biomass energy are not able to produce the amounts of electricity called for in this project.

Greg Watson, one of the Cape Wind principals, noted that several states (including Massachusetts and Rhode Island) have mandated renewable energy production. "I want to make sure that doesn't get lost," he said.

Other questioners wanted to know if the environmental study would incorporate the costs of burning fossil fuels for power that wind power would avoid: global warming, health hazards from low air quality, dependence on foreign oil.

"It's not my job to settle policies of a global nature," Koning said.