Feds drop Deepwater complaint

Riggs threatens lawsuit, Deepwater decries 'delay tactics'
Thu, 10/18/2012 - 7:15pm

A federal agency has dropped a Newport resident’s complaint about Deepwater Wind’s Block Island Wind Farm, helping clear the way for the company to build the first offshore windfarm in the United States.

In the complaint, which was filed August 22, Benjamin Riggs complained that power generated at the windfarm would be too expensive, and that the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission acted improperly when it approved a contract between Deepwater and National Grid.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission announced Thursday, Oct. 18, that it would not pursue the complaint.

“We are pleased that FERC acted so quickly to dismiss this baseless complaint,” said Jeff Grybowski, chief administrative officer of Deepwater Wind. “The Block Island Wind Farm and Transmission System will lead to significantly lower power prices on Block Island, something that is very important to the residents of that island. We are moving full speed ahead to make that a reality, and we hope that the opponents of clean energy will move on too.”

In late September, the Attorney General’s office had asked FERC to dismiss the complaint on behalf of the PUC. Deepwater also asked that it be dismissed.

Riggs says the fact that the federal agency did not dismiss the complaint, but only failed to pursue it, was a victory of sorts. “It is noteworthy they declined to dismiss it,” he said. “Essentially this is a ‘right to sue’ letter that allows me to go to U.S. District Court in Providence, since this is a federal question. I think they figure that since the loser would have the right, after exhausting this administrative remedy, to go the court, the case may as well go directly there now.”

The $250 million, five-turbine Deepwater Wind project would generate up to 30 megawatts of power, about 10 times more than Block Island uses. The company has said it expects the turbines to be operational by late 2014 a few miles off Block Island’s southeast shore. Excess power is to be sold to National Grid via a 15-mile, $50-million cable that will be laid under the ocean floor.

It’s the first of two projects the company plans in the region; the second, much larger project would lie further offshore in federal waters.

Riggs said he is “looking now at taking the next step” in opposing the Block Island Wind Farm.

“At least in court, we’ll get an answer, but I estimate it could take up to nine months,” Riggs said. “Then the loser can always appeal to the 1st Circuit.”

Deepwater says it's not rattled. "It's no secret what he's trying to do," said Grybowski. "This is a fairly typical strategy used by opponents of renewable energy projects. They use threats because they think that if you delay long enough, you can't get financing. Anyone can file a lawsuit, and if Mr. Riggs would like to waste more money taking us to federal court, we're confident that we'll prevail."

The speed with which the federal agency moved on Riggs' complaint shows how frivolous the complaint was, Grybowski said. "I think it's very notable that it was dismissed by FERC in a matter of weeks. FERC didn't even bother to ask him for further arguments."

Deepwater is moving through its final federal and state permitting. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened a 45-day comment period Oct. 2. On the state level, the Coastal Resources Management Council’s O-SAMP subcommittee took a first look at the project Oct. 16, but concentrated mostly on process as the agency tackles its first windfarm application, said CRMC spokesperson Laura Dwyer today. The agency is still reviewing the extensive application, she added, but is on track to open public comment later this month and will likely extend it beyond the usual 30-day period.

A date for CRMC's public hearing has yet to be set.

Riggs’ original complaint said that the burden of paying for an overly expensive project would fall unfairly on mainland ratepayers. Under Deepwater’s 20-year agreement with National Grid, it will charge the utility 24.4 cents a kilowatt hour to start with, a number that is three times as high as most conventional sources, and will increase annually by 3.5 percent.

The net effect will be a 2 percent increase in mainland power bills.

For Block Island, where power rates hit 60 cents a kilowatt hour this summer, the company and a town energy task force have forecast rates will drop by at least a third.

Deepwater has dismissed Riggs as a long-standing opponent of renewable energy projects, and points out that he has made other federal complaints in vain. "We're moving ahead and we feel like we're ready for financing in 2013," Grybowski said.