Island farm still possible? — Business, tourism leaders talk to Deepwater

Mon, 04/19/2010 - 4:00am
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4/17/10 — “It doesn’t seem like it’s over — the door isn’t necessarily closed,” said Tourism Council President John Cullen at an informal luncheon hosted by Deepwater Wind for the council and the Chamber of Commerce last Friday.

Deepwater honored the previously scheduled luncheon date, even though its proposal for an eight-turbine wind farm connected to Block Island — the first offshore wind farm in the nation — appeared to be lost after the Public Utilities Commission rejected a power agreement reached between the developer and National Grid the week before.

“I have no crystal ball on this one,” said Paul Rich, chief development officer of Deepwater Wind. “But, it’s not easy for me to let go the notion that Block Island is out of the mix.”

Rich said Deepwater remained “optimistic about wind in this region” and that Rhode Island “remains the best spot to try to do it.” He said wind energy offered a tremendous opportunity for the state and “we haven’t given up yet.”

He pointed out that the governor and the state Legislature “share our disappointment” with the PUC decision. He said he was buoyed by other communications of outrage at the decision.

(The Providence Journal published an editorial Thursday denouncing the PUC decision and urging the state to move forward on offshore wind energy in the state.)

Together, he said, they are trying to find “some way to revitalize our effort.” It was up to the state, he said, to “re-engage — nothing we could do on our own could open the PUC hearings.”

Tourism Council member Ted Merritt and others suggested that many island residents remained on the fence about the project because it was never clearly spelled out what the benefits would be for Block Island.

Rich said most analysts suggest the island’s electricity charges would be cut in half. While the fuel surcharge would almost be “virtually eliminated,” he said, “who knows what the cable allocation will be?”

Pam Hinthorn asked why local residents were not given an opportunity to invest in the project. Rich explained that the effort remained a private venture, at least until it was built.

Realtor Gail Ballard Hall asked, “who would bear the cost of the cable?”

Rich said that the wind farm “made it possible to spread the allocation” among all the state’s ratepayers. However, who would pay for a cable without a wind farm remains an open question.

Since turning down the power contract, the PUC opened a docket to ask National Grid to consider installing a cable to Block Island, with or without a wind farm.

Previous efforts to attach the island have stalled because the island’s small ratepayer base could never afford it; it remains to be seen if National Grid would install such a cable and how the costs would be allocated.

Barbara MacMullan and Second Warden Ray Torrey both asked if Deepwater would be willing to lower its proposed 24.4-cents-per-kilowatt-hour price — which the PUC deemed not “commercially reasonable” — in order to keep the project alive.

“We’re interested in maintaining the project,” said Rich, adding, “but you have to have an avenue to get this back before the PUC.”

MacMullan and Town Council member Peter Baute explained that price predictability and reliability were both potential huge advantages that could come with the project for both island residents and businesses alike.

And, while these could also come from a free standing cable to the mainland, with the wind farm the island could get the majority of its electricity from a renewable source, they said.

Cullen pointed out that a recent rendering of what the wind farm would look like, published in the Block Island Times, was “eye opening.” He heard from many people who were concerned about “how looming, how large” the turbines would be.

Rich said the renderings were accurate and that Deepwater “never shied away that these are large machines.”

He added, “we don’t pretend to say that ‘clean energy is over the horizon’ [for Block Island].”

Rich said a larger proposed wind farm — Phase 2 — was still “many years down the road” because the federal government has yet to finalize permitting and regulations for wind farms in federal waters.

Deepwater island liaison Bryan Wilson pointed out that the state’s first wind study called for hundreds of wind turbines to surround the island to take advantage of its steady breeze. It was Deepwater that suggested the small farm to assist Block Island — as stipulated in the enabling legislation — and then a larger farm over the horizon.

Tourism Council member, and former first warden, Martha Ball offered that, “most who were radically opposed” to the farm were primarily concerned about their ocean views; the costs, she said, helped them make the argument against the farm. “All you really care about is what you see,” Ball said she had told an opponent of the wind farm, adding that she has to live with her view of the island’s power plant.

Wilson reminded the group that the island experienced similar resistance when the sewer system was first proposed in the 1970s. Many said it would ruin the island, but instead has provided many economic and ecological benefits. “No one wants to go back,” he said.

Rich said he “firmly believed” that tourism would benefit from the wind farm.

Many asked Rich what they could do to help keep the project alive. Rich did not offer advice, saying he was not there to lobby them.

“The ball is also in our court,” said Baute.

Cullen agreed, saying, “we as a community have an opportunity to pursue this.”

And, closing the meeting, Albion Pub owner Suzanne Walsh said she understood what supporters of the wind farm needed to do: “We need to step up to the plate.”