Deepwater Wind agrees to run its cable underground in Narragansett

Announcement comes after Narragansett council suspends talks
Wed, 05/08/2013 - 7:15pm

Stalled negotiations between town officials in Narragansett and Deepwater Wind, over the landing of a 21-mile cable that will connect Block Island to the mainland’s power grid, led to a change in the company’s proposal this week.

On Monday, the Narragansett Town Council voted unanimously to suspend negotiations with Deepwater Wind until June. On Tuesday, Deepwater Wind’s CEO Jeffrey Grybowski announced that the company would revert to a plan that calls for the cable to run underground from its landing at the town beach to a switching station about a mile away.

“We’ve listened closely to the feedback from Narragansett residents and town officials, and we heard loud and clear that an underground route is the preferred option for the Block Island Wind Farm transmission system,” said Grybowski. “We’ll propose that option to the Narragansett Town Council next month, and we’ll look forward to continuing the dialogue on this important project.”

The delayed negotiations is the latest glitch in Deepwater Wind’s plans to build a five-turbine demonstration wind farm three miles southeast of Block Island and install the 21-mile cable that will bring 90 percent of the energy to the mainland. Grybowski said Wednesday that, despite the delay in negotiations, construction for the wind farm is still on schedule with onshore work slated to begin by the end of the year. The company expects to complete the permitting process for the project this summer. Grybowski is confident that an agreement for the cable landing in Narragansett will eventually be reached.

“I’m quite comfortable that we will reach an agreement with Narragansett,” Grybowski said.

On Monday, Narragansett officials did not seem so sure. Two hours of testimony from residents led to a heated debate between Councilman Matthew Mannix, who proposed the motion to suspend negotiations, and other council members who believe talks should not be further delayed.

“I want to tell the public that it’s on hold and we are doing the research,” Mannix said during the meeting. “We need to send a signal that we will not go behind closed doors.”

“I’ve never had any closed-door meetings with Deepwater Wind,” retorted Councilman Douglas McLaughlin. “It makes no sense at all if we stop talking with them. We will be in the same position in one month.”

Mannix said that he wants more time to review two decisions made by the R.I. Public Utilities Commission (PUC) about the wind farm project. Current research has led him to believe there was much influence from “big business and government” on the project, he said.

Residents questioned what amount of money Deepwater Wind would pay Narragansett to grant the cable easement, but that figure has not been made public. Mannix said Monday that the amount discussed in executive sessions with Deepwater Wind “is way too low.”

McLaughlin said that is why talks should continue. “I don’t know what the final offer and package is … how will we find that out if we suspend talks with them?” McLaughlin asked.

Prior to the vote to delay negotiations for nearly a month, more than 30 people spoke about the project. Familiar arguments against the project, including environmental concerns, were made, but new support was voiced by several union leaders who attended the meeting.

Michael F. Sabitoni, president of the R.I. Building and Construction Trades Council that represents 10,000 tradesmen in 15 unions, told the board the project is about more than its effects on Narragansett.

“This is also about the state of Rhode Island,” Sabitoni said and urged the council to remember that with the project comes construction employment. “This comes down to ‘What is the public good?’”

Roy A. Coulombe, business manager of the Iron Workers Local No. 37, agreed.

“Do your due diligence but do whatever you can to keep this project moving forward,” he said.

But others urged the council to do more research before granting an easement for the cable.

“Renewable energy is too important to not get it right,” said Block Island resident Maggie Delia, who owns 14 acres on the southeast side of the island. “Do not trust this company. You have the future in your hands.”

Former state representative Laurence Ehrhardt of North Kingstown told the council that after the wind farm project failed to get PUC approval several years ago, state legislation was written to force approval from the PUC.

“This project is not approved on its merits by any objective body in this state,” Ehrhardt said. “The legislation was rewritten and then the PUC had no choice to approve it.”

Tina Jackson, president of the American Alliance of Fishermen and their Communities, testified about an offshore wind farm in Hawaii that has had numerous structural problems. Jerry Carvalho, vice president of the R.I. Fishermen’s Alliance, warned about handing over Rhode Island’s waters and fish breeding grounds to private industry.

“We will industrialize the ocean and it will no longer be our food basket,” Carvalho said.

The Sierra Club again spoke in favor of the project, citing the need for alternative energy sources to combat global warming.

“This is a small project … but it is the first step in an industry that can make a big difference,” said Abel G. Collins, program manager of the R.I. Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Narragansett resident Bob Trager agreed and said that America is behind the eight ball when it comes to developing renewable energy sources. “[Wind farms] might not be good in certain places, but at the same time is the rest of the world crazy?” Trager asked.

The transmission cable

Residents also raised questions on the transmission cable itself and Deepwater Wind’s plans to bring it ashore at the town beach.

About 10 percent of the power generated from the wind farm would supply Block Island via a cable that runs from the turbines, then ashore at Crescent Beach, to a substation. The other 90 percent would be fed into National Grid’s system, via a bi-directional submerged transmission cable that will run approximately 21.8 miles from the substation on Block Island to a switchyard in Narragansett. The cable would be located within the state and federal waters and travel from Old Harbor on Block Island, around Point Judith’s rocky shoal, and land at Narragansett Town Beach.

Deepwater Wind had originally proposed that the cable would then connect to National Grid’s system by the underground lines but in March the company presented a plan to use above-ground transmission lines on poles 5-feet to 10-feet taller than those that exist along the mile-long route. That plan brought criticism from residents, who were concerned that such tall poles would make the town look “industrial” or that above-ground power lines would cause safety concerns for children who play at Sprague Park or attend the elementary school along the route.

Grybowski said Wednesday that he listened to those concerns and will discuss the proposal to put the transmission line underground once Deepwater Wind can meet with town officials in June. That meeting will most likely be scheduled after the moratorium on talks with Deepwater Wind ends on June 3. Although the council wants the meeting to be open to the public, it is unclear if residents will have an opportunity to speak during it.

On Monday, residents urged the council to listen to their concerns and reminded members that they are in a high-stakes negotiation with a multi-million dollar company.

“It’s up to you to make sure we get protection for the town,” said John Thompson. “Deepwater Wind gets all the profits and Narragansett gets nothing in return. They have negotiated all around the world and you don’t have the experience.”

“Is there an amount that will make you sell out and if so what is it?” asked Judith Warburton. “The greatest asset in Narragansett is the town beach.”

“It sounds like they need us more than we need them,” Warburton added.