BREAKING NEWS: Fresh breeze for wind farm

Mon, 05/03/2010 - 1:15pm
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4/29/10 — The Block Island wind farm may have new life after Sen. Susan Sosnowski introduced a bill late Wednesday that would give four governor-appointed agency heads the power to approve a contract reached between Deepwater Wind and National Grid.

A duplicate House bill is expected to appear soon.

The bill would diminish the role of the Public Utilities Commission, which recently rejected the contract reached between Deepwater Wind and National Grid, and hand the decision to the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers administrator, the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation executive director, the Office of Energy Resources director, and the Department of Administration director.

The legislation, which Sosnowski sponsored with senators Josh Miller, Walter Felag, Dominick Ruggerio and Michael McCaffrey, arrives in the wake of last month’s PUC denial of the Block Island wind farm power price, which the three members deemed too expensive at 24.4-cent per kilowatt-hour.

If passed, the law would “open up the process,” says Sosnowski. “It will bring in other divisions that should be involved in the review of this project.”

The PUC is intended to be a five-person entity, according to Sosnowski, but the governor has only appointed three members. Given that, the senator was uncomfortable that a three-member “tribunal” decided “an issue of this magnitude.”

The decision had a “chilling effect” on all potential renewable projects in the state, she said.

According to her reading of the bill, the process would still allow the PUC to chime in on the contract in an advisory capacity to the head of the Division. Still, the Division would have one of four votes.

The bill also calls for the 24.4-cents per kWh to be the wind farm’s maximum price, as opposed the starting price. The current cost of electricity is seven to nine cents per-kWh.

It would also include an “open audited process,” so that the project’s construction costs would be public. Sosnowski said that overall the new approach “would be better for the ratepayers.”

Sosnowski’s reading of her constituency on Block Island is that there “is a lot more support for this than not.” Though she is expecting to hear from detractors.

She wasn’t surprised the legislation had to be revisited. “This is really such a new process,” said Sosnowski. “Don’t know exactly the best way to do it.” She also said the bill picked up momentum after Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar approved the 130-turbine Cape Wind project for Horseshoe Shoals between Cape Cod and Nantucket earlier Wednesday.

The Senate Environment and Agriculture committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill Wednesday, May 4, at 4 p.m.

Paul Rich, chief development officer for Deepwater Wind, said the bill indicated to him that the state was still “truly interested in seeing the Block Island project move forward.”

Rich said the bill would be in keeping with the state’s broader renewable energy goal, and it provides the Deepwater an avenue to reconsider the Block Island project. “In the near term,” Rich said, “it at least allows us to take the project back off the shelf.”

To read the bill in its entirety, visit www.rilin.state.ri.us//BillText10/SenateText10/S2819.pdf

Cape Wind

Salazar’s announcement Wednesday made Cape Wind the front runner to be the first offshore wind farm in the United States.

The decision appeared to re-energize Rhode Island’s ambitions to erect a wind farm in its waters.

“Rhode Island has as much of a chance as anyone,” said Tricia Jedele, director of the Rhode Island office of the Conservation Law Foundation. She hoped the decision would “reinvigorate the conversation here in Rhode Island.”

Jedele stressed that “if we are ever going to make [offshore wind] a reality” the “bigger picture” had to be considered when weighing the higher start-up costs of wind farms, not just focusing “how it compares to oil and gas.”

Deepwater’s Rich called the approval an “important milestone for the industry.” In terms of Deepwater, it would will help the company better understand the federal framework for “moving the larger project forward.”

Deepwater also is proposing a larger, 100-turbine farm approxiamately 15 miles east of Block Island.

He said the decision is a “great indication to the industry” — especially in Europe — that the U.S. is serious about moving offshore wind projects forward. The Europeans were “skeptical that we could,” said Rich.

Governor Donald Carcieri commended Salazar’s decision as “a significant step forward in developing the offshore wind industry on the East Coast. The Northeast has a chance to lead the nation in development of this new and important industry, creating thousands of new, green jobs for the region and strengthens our nation’s economic security by reducing our dependence on foreign sources of oil.”

The Cape Wind project has been a lightning rod of controversy since its proposal nine years ago. The late Sen. Ted Kennedy was a vocal opponent of the farm, which would be visible from the legendary Kennedy compound in Hyannisport.

The 130-turbine farm, is designed to have a capacity of 420 megawatts, capable of providing for three quarters of Cape Cod and the islands. It would take up 24 square miles in Horseshoe Shoals, about the size of Manhattan.

The Conservation Law Foundation, Mass Audubon, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists said the decision would help get clean, renewable American energy up and running, cut global warming pollution, fuel economic growth, provide jobs, reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and promote energy independence.

“We can harness the domestic energy potential off our shores while protecting our oceans at the same time. Cape Wind jumpstarts the American offshore wind industry and sets the stage for the U.S. to become a leader in clean energy,” said NRDC Counsel on Air and Energy Kit Kennedy.

“After nine years of project review and independent scientific field research, Mass Audubon has concluded that the Cape Wind project would not pose an ecologically significant threat to the birds and associated marine habitat of Horseshoe Shoal and Nantucket Sound,” said Laura Johnson, president of Mass Audubon.

“The Cape Wind project approval means we’ll now have a new arrow in the nation’s renewable energy quiver,” said John Rogers, a senior energy analyst in UCS’s Climate and Energy Program.

The Minerals Management Service calculated that, due to reduced need for fossil-fuel generated power to serve the area’s needs, Cape Wind would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) by nearly one million tons per year, or approximately one percent of total greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts from all sources.

“Today is a turning point for New England in which we can start to turn smokestacks into wind turbines,” said John Kassel, president of Conservation Law Foundation.