Gov. for, A.G. against wind farm bill

Mon, 05/10/2010 - 1:45pm
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05/08/10 - Supporters and opponents of a new Senate bill (S2819) that would resurrect the Block Island wind farm turned out Wednesday night to voice their opinions at a hearing in Providence of the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture.

Block Island residents and members of the Town Council were among those testifying during the five-hour long hearing. Even Gov. Donald L. Carcieri appeared before the committee to speak in support of the bill, marking just the third time in his administration he has testified on legislation.

“I am appearing before you today to express my unqualified support for [this bill],” Carcieri said in a letter to the committee. “Passage of this legislation in a timely manner is critically important to ensuring that Rhode Island has the opportunity to continue to be a leader in developing an off-shore wind industry.”

However, even as the governor expressed his support, state Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch submitted a letter to the committee sharply critical of the new bill.

“My opposition to [the bill] is based on four principles,” Lynch wrote. “1) The act undermines the integrity of the quasi-adjudicatory process; 2) the act amounts to legislative adjudication; 3) the act is post hoc, that is, retroactive; and 4) it tends to perpetuate mistakes in an earlier phase of the process.”

Lynch explained that the bill would hurt wind energy in Rhode Island by promoting what he called an “inefficient and unfairly selected small-scale demonstration project.” Lynch favored the larger wind farm planned for an area 10 miles from Block Island, which he viewed as more economically feasible.

On Thursday, the day after the hearing, Carcieri responded to the attorney general’s letter with a letter of his own. In the letter, Carcieri wrote that the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) had “over stepped its bounds” and does not have the authority to make public policy. He explained that in his view, the new bill would be expanding the process of reviewing the power purchase agreement rather than relying on the narrow scope of the PUC.

“I am appreciative of [Lynch’s] support for renewable energy,” Carcieri said. “However, I am more disappointed in [his] myopic view of the legislation and [his] discounting of the value of the demonstration project.”

Sen. Susan Sosnowski, who introduced the bill and is chair of the committee, said that the hearing was encouraging. She said that it was well attended and was informative from both sides. She observed that nearly all the opposition was about the process and not against the wind farm itself.

“What we are doing is trying to make the process better,” Sosnowski said. “After hearing all these members of the state government and business leaders and citizens speaking in favor of the bill, I feel like we are getting it right.”

The Conservation Law Foundation is one of the groups to strongly denounce the way the legislature is moving forward with this bill. The group had previously participated in the PUC docket on the power purchase agreement between Deepwater and National Grid and was in support of the issue of renewable energy.

Tricia K. Jedele, the director of Rhode Island advocacy for the CLF, spoke to the committee in opposition to the bill. She said that the correct process would be to appeal the PUC’s decision and not to “use the legislature as a court of appeals.”

“This bill does not just take oversight away from the PUC but now replaces it with no process at all,” Jedele said. “Basically, it is just the Governor rubber stamping a business contract.”

Sosnowski expressed her appreciation for the many Block Island residents who attended the meeting, saying that they were passionate on both sides of the issue. Three members of the Town Council attended and spoke to the committee.

Council Member Peter Baute spoke in defense of a survey that was taken on the island, which showed that more than 80 percent of island residents were in favor of the wind farm. He addressed a common belief that Deepwater Wind had paid for the survey. Baute said that the survey was conducted by Roger Williams University and paid for with its own funds; Baute asserted that it was designed to be scientific and unbiased.

First Warden Kim Gaffett presented the Town Council’s position, which was in support of the wind farm although she did acknowledge that some island residents are opposed. She also said that while she is a supporter of the wind farm and the bill, “reasonable people can disagree.”

Mike Hickey, one of several Block Island residents in attendence, spoke against the process the legislature was taking. He said that his concern was whether circumventing the PUC would diminish the authority of that body.

“The fact that the current attorney general and a former attorney general and several conservation groups like the Conservation Law Foundation came out against this bill says a lot,” Hickey said.

Deepwater Wind CEO Bill Moore spoke near the end of the meeting. The main thrust of his remarks was that Deepwater should be given another opportunity to have its plans for the wind farm reviewed.

Deepwater Chief Development Officer Paul Rich said that the project is in a very tight time frame with several expensive studies that need to be completed to move forward.

“Rhode Island has been in the forefront of wind energy,” Rich said. “We’ve held an advantage for a long time, and it’s starting to slip away.”

PUC Cable Hearing

The PUC also held a meeting Wednesday to consider the possibility of opening a docket on a stand-alone cable between Block Island and the mainland.

The meeting was mainly informational; however, several important issues were discussed. National Grid said that while it was willing to participate in the docket it currently does not have discretionary funds available for the cable project.

Gaffett, who attended the meeting, said that the PUC agreed a two-way cable would be needed rather than a one-way cable. This would allow the town to develop alternative energy on the island and transmit it back to the mainland if excess energy was generated.

Gaffett said that a docket on the cable might be opened at one of the PUC’s next two public meetings.