Council allows Deepwater met tower

Mon, 03/09/2009 - 4:00am
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03/07/09 - The Town Council voted to allow the installation of a temporary meteorological tower near the Coast Guard station despite opposition from some residents who questioned the permitting process.

Deepwater Wind plans to use data gathered from anemometers on the 180-foot tower to help determine the location of two offshore wind farms tentatively planned for an area southeast of Block Island.

Deepwater Vice President for Development Clint Plummer said he expected the company to erect the metal pole tower in May and keep it in place for one to two years. The tower still requires approval from the state Coastal Resources Management Council, which Plummer said he expects quickly.

The council’s approval Monday came over the objections of some Cormorant Cove residents and others who said the council erred in granting a special temporary permit for the project. Under zoning ordinances the council may grant the permit “in circumstance of emergency or other urgent necessity for the public health and safety.”

“Assuming without conceding, for argument sake only, that there is some tenuous connection between the public health and safety and the purposes for which the tower is to be erected, there simply is no emergency or other urgent necessity,” wrote Mark Hagopian, a lawyer for Cormorant Cove property owner Howell Conant.

Resident Mike Delia asked the council to specifically cite the emergency, saying his lawyer wanted it on the record.

Council members said the exhaust from the Block Island Power Company’s diesel generators posed a health risk. They also said the electricity rates hovering around 65 cents a kilowatt-hour last summer put the island on the brink of an economic crisis and that anxiety about utility costs is threatening the very way of life.

“It is critical to the well being of this town to stabilize rates; I would call that an emergency,” First Warden Kim Gaffett said.

She also called the special permit a “tool” for unique situations. She and Town Manager Nancy Dodge maintained that the zoning ordinance provides no mechanism for a company to apply to construct a meteorological tower. Thus, they said, Deepwater had to apply for a special temporary permit.

Some residents also complained in letters to the council that the process bypassed the traditional permitting process. The special permit requires no formal notification of abutters and sidesteps the Zoning Board entirely.

Delia, who owns property next to the Southeast Lighthouse, expressed frustration that the council granted Deepwater a special permit in January to place an avian radar unit on lighthouse grounds.

“My right of due process is violated when I come home and there’s a commercial piece of property on my neighbor’s property and I didn’t even receive a phone call,” Delia said. “My right as an American citizen is to have my due process honored and I expect you all to honor my due process every step of the way.”

Delia and his wife Maggie added that they opposed wind farms near the island. Maggie Delia called the turbines “very visible, very obnoxious” and said she had “a lot to lose” if they were built.

Deepwater tentatively plans to place five to eight turbines about three miles off the southeast coast of Block Island, directly in the viewshed of the Delias.

The Delias appeared alone in their opposition. Audience members that spoke overwhelming supported the meteorological tower as a temporary hassle that could lead to lower electricity rates and a stronger economy.

“The economic health of this island is in jeopardy because of the cost of electricity,” Lew Fagan said. “Whatever the council can do to fast-track this system to get the meteorological tower in place in spite of a few [not-in-my-backyard objectors] I think we need to pursue.”

Resident and Planning Board member Robbie Gilpin called the objections to the permitting process “just a delaying tactic” meant to put the brakes on a wind farm that he said the island needs desperately.

Monday’s Town Council meeting marked the third time Deepwater Wind officials had explained the purpose of the tower in as many days. Earlier in the day Deepwater presented details of the wind farms to the town’s Electric Utility Task Group and on Saturday it held a public information session.

At both meetings Plummer, the company vice president, offered much of what the company has already presented. He reiterated that the final locations of a 20-megawatt wind farm about three miles off the coast of Block Island and a 385-megawatt farm 15 miles to the east depend on the results of an ocean Special Area Management Plan being undertaken by the state Coastal Resources Management Commission. That plan is looking at the impacts of a wind farm on the environment, shipping lanes and more.

Plummer also offered, for the first time, greater details about the cable to the mainland, the proposed layout of the wind farm just off the coast and its connection to the Block Island Power Company.

The 20-megawatt project would tentatively include a cable to the island that would be drilled under the beach just north of the Beachead restaurant. From there it would travel underground along Corn Neck Road to Beach Avenue to Ocean Avenue and in to the power company’s existing substation. Another cable would follow essentially the same route and travel across Block Island Sound to Narragansett beach. From there it would travel to a substation in Wakefield.

That cable would send excess electricity generated by the wind farm to the mainland. When the wind farm could not supply the island’s needs, electricity could flow from the mainland grid to the island. Plummer said Deepwater planned to design, build and own the cable. The company hopes to have the 20-megawatt farm and cable complete by 2012 and start selling electricity soon after.

At what price remains up in the air. Media have widely reported Deepwater planned to sell the electricity at about 16 cents a kilowatt-hour to both the mainland and island. That price would rise by the time it reached customers because of distribution and administrative costs.

On Monday Plummer shied away from citing a specific wholesale price, saying it depended on a host of factors including agreements with the region’s electric grid manager, bank financing, turbine selection and wind resources. The company is also urging the state legislature to pass a law that would require electricity distributors to purchase renewable energy generated in Rhode Island. That would provide a guaranteed market for Deepwater.

Plummer also said he was not the person to explain how Deepwater, selling its electricity for 16 cents a kwh, would compete with mainland generators selling electricity for 10 cents or less a kwh. He agreed to arrange a meeting between the task group and a Deepwater financial expert to explain the finances.

Some, however, remained skeptical. Henry duPont, a wind energy consultant and Block Island resident, told the Town Council the numbers didn’t add up.

“This all sounds great and everything but I don’t know who’s going to invest in it the way it’s presented,” duPont said.

Plummer said Deepwater planned to fund the project primarily through equity with New York hedge fund D.E. Shaw & Co. and private wind energy company First Wind as backers.

His comments came on a day when the Dow Jones industrial average plummeted 4.2 percent to its lowest close since October 1997 and the government moved to rescue faltering insurance giant A.I.G.

And the Wall Street Journal Monday reported investors in D.E. Shaw have been demanding their money back at record rates. Citing unnamed sources close to the company, the Journal reported D.E. Shaw’s assets fell by $9 billion in the second half of last year to $30 billion after investment losses and withdrawals. On Monday, Plummer pegged Shaw’s assets at $30 billion.

D.E. Shaw is also appointing independent investigators to reassure investors that it was not a victim of a giant Wall Street scam allegedly run by Bernard Madoff.