Masters student writing thesis on B.I. Wind Farm

Says global offshore wind energy interest is strong
Mon, 11/30/2015 - 6:30pm

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series about URI Masters Student Joe Dwyer’s thesis project pertaining to the Block Island Wind Farm.

A University of Rhode Island master’s candidate, majoring in Marine Affairs, believes that the public’s voice should be heard when offshore wind farms are being sited and constructed.

Joe Dwyer, 24, is writing a masters thesis project aimed at the public engagement process associated with construction of the Block Island Wind Farm. Dwyer has been studying the societal impact of the offshore wind farm and hopes that developers of other projects are sensitive to the public’s concerns when constructing offshore wind farms in this country.

“I am interested in working to better manage, current and new uses, in a busier ocean environment,” Dwyer told The Block Island Times. “I am a strong believer in the science behind climate change and, as such, I am glad to see any societal actions away from fossil fuels — with the caveat that the projects are well vetted and both benefits and costs are factored into siting and development processes.”

Since the Block Island Wind Farm is the nation’s first offshore wind farm, it is generating interest in an assortment of forums and academic studies by students and professors, as well as professionals in the marine environment and energy industries across the country. Dwyer, who said he would be “defending his thesis in early April,” is one of those people interested in analyzing the topic.

“My thesis is an attempt to highlight mismatches that may exist between what the public, both individuals and special interest groups, expects from a public engagement process and what developers or government agencies feel they need to provide during a public process,” said Dwyer. “Specifically, I am looking to address how well the public’s beliefs, values and attitudes were incorporated by both the OceanSAMP process and the Deepwater Wind development of the Block Island Wind Farm.”

According to the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council’s (CRMC) website, the Ocean Special Area Management Plan (OceanSAMP), created by the CRMC, is the first plan of its kind to zone offshore waters and provide a regulatory framework for alternative energy projects. OceanSAMP provided the regulatory framework that was administered by the CRMC on the Block Island Wind Farm project.

Dwyer said that his interest in offshore wind energy projects and their sociological implications was sparked after a meeting he had with his advisor, David Bidwell.

“In my undergrad studies, I assisted in research that analyzed the estimated potential economic ripple effects that may occur from offshore wind,” noted Dwyer. “This sparked an interest in the more social side of offshore wind development, and I was lucky enough that URI had just recently hired an environmental sociologist to look at such a topic.”

The environmental sociologist that Dwyer is referring to is Bidwell, who “teaches a graduate level Research Methods class and is trying to start up a group directed study on public attitudes,” he said. “He also teaches two undergrad classes, Environmental Sociology and Environmental Decision Making and Behavior.” 

Bidwell told The Times that Environmental Sociology is “an interdisciplinary field of social science that is focused on the many relationships between society and the environment.” 

As for Dwyer, he said that he “saw an opportunity in terms of the timing of” his research. “With construction planned to begin (on the Block Island Wind Farm), I knew this topic would provide an excellent and timely case study. Offshore wind is gaining steam in the United States, with multiple other companies putting in bids for offshore sites up and down the East Coast. And regardless of my personal opinion, I believe there is a need to study how the public feels about this fact.”

Dwyer spent June through August on Block Island conducting a collection survey with undergrad students Natasha Wilcox and Kayla Nitzberg, regarding the sociological impact of the wind farm. His thesis work includes conducting interviews “with private developers involved in the siting and development process, state officials who worked closely with the public during the OceanSAMP, and public stakeholders who were engaged in either or both of the processes,” who were able to provide insight about the topic of the wind farm.

“When conducting the survey, I was grateful for the hospitality on the island,” said Dwyer, who had visited Block Island on a few vacations. “The women at the Visitor’s Center were extremely gracious and kind, allowing us to make about two dozen eight-page surveys when we ran out one day. Also, the women at the library greatly assisted us by allowing us to use their personal tables and chairs everyday so we did not have to stand. Even the majority of the tourists seemed to be happy we were out on the island studying such a topic. We were praised for the work we were doing and I personally had multiple conversations with people who were willing to take time out of their vacation to discuss the topic more in detail.” 

Bidwell believes that Dwyer’s research will provide essential information to the offshore wind development industry. “Joe’s thesis work is important because academics and resource managers have pointed to public participation as a critical piece of a smart process for developing renewable energy. With such high interest in offshore wind energy development up and down the Atlantic coast, there are many eyes on Rhode Island right now. Joe’s work will help us understand what different stakeholders have experienced in the years leading up to the Block Island Wind Farm. Scholars, developers, and public officials can use the results of his study to set priorities for further research and shape development processes for other projects.”

Dwyer noted that construction of projects, like the Block Island Wind Farm, aren’t viewed favorably by all members of the public. “There will never be a perfect project that will be universally accepted by everyone,” he said. “It just simply is not the case. However, better incorporation of public opinion has the potential to provide a better representation of the public’s thoughts and opinions. Thus, hopefully creating a system, where even those people who are not pleased with the outcome may state that the process worked to incorporate their voice.”

Dwyer attended the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) Offshore Wind Conference and Expo in Baltimore this past September and noted that industry professionals involved with building offshore wind farm arrays in this country are “optimistic” about the burgeoning American offshore wind energy business.

“With more wind farms being built you will see more incentive to make the technology more efficient and cost effective,” said Dwyer. “I think the recent and rapid tech advances show a strong global interest in this industry. So, I think it’s in our best interest to take appropriate action now. Also, I would hope that there is interest in attempting to update approved wind farms with new technology where applicable, rather than counting on countries to continuously find appropriate ocean space.”

Dwyer plans on applying “to a few fellowships in the marine policy realm. These would be excellent opportunities to work side-by-side with leaders in this field,” he said. “I would like to be involved in something that deals with public engagement for projects. I want to be a part of utilizing and protecting the ocean and its coasts.”

Bidwell said Dwyer’s dedication and research skills will serve him well in his marine affairs career. “Joe completed an undergraduate degree in Marine Affairs before moving into the Master of Arts in Marine Affairs program, so he’s demonstrated a long-term commitment to understanding the policy and social dimensions of marine and coastal management,” said Bidwell. “I’ve enjoyed working with Joe, in part because he’s a good-natured guy, but also because he has a strong aptitude for research.”

Dwyer said his mother is responsible for directing him to his study of marine affairs at URI. “I came out of my senior high school marine biology class with dreams of playing with dolphins and whales and traveling the ocean,” he said. “Then I got a call from my mom midsummer stating that she was switching me to marine affairs, and that it was ‘basically the same thing.’ Well, the first class proved that wasn’t the case, but in the end mother always knows best.”