More union support for Block Island wind farm

Mon, 01/25/2010 - 5:00am

01/23/10 - Union construction workers packed the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission’s Warwick hearing room Wednesday to endorse the eight turbine wind power project proposed for three miles off Block Island. Echoing testimony at last week’s hearing in Pawtucket, the workers emphasized the need for jobs. They also praised the project’s potential for reducing American dependence on foreign oil and pollution. A lone voice opposed the project.

All together, about 70 people attended the fourth public hearing on the proposed power purchase agreement between developer Deepwater Wind and utility National Grid. Formal PUC hearings with expert witnesses testifying under oath will begin March 9. A decision by the three member commission is expected April 2.

At this week’s hearing, Rhode Island AFL-CIO President George Nee testified that the Deepwater/National Grid deal “was not just a dollars and cents proposition. This is a tremendous economic opportunity and a chance for freedom for our country.” He continued that American oil purchases finance “crooks” and “thugs” in the Middle East. Generating power from wind will “protect our political freedom,” he concluded.

Manny Marques of Middletown also linked the project to American foreign policy noting that more than 3,000 Americans have died in Afghanistan and Iraq protecting U.S. interests in the oil region. “There’s no need for that,” he said.

Allen Durand, business manager of Local 99 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, took a different tack. Comparing the Deepwater contract’s proposed 24 cents per-kilowatt hour price with the current National Grid price of about 9 cents per-kilowatt hour was unfair, he said. Coal is cheaper to burn, he stated, because it does not include the price of treating people who contract black lung disease and other pollution related illnesses. The benefits of the Deepwater project, he concluded, “are the damage we avoid to the environment.”

But not everyone was convinced. Part-time island resident Nicholas DePetrillo opposed the proposed power purchase agreement, saying “Maybe someone can explain how it makes a good deal to pay more than they’re paying now.” In her testimony, National Grid attorney Jennifer Brooks Hutchinson said that Rhode Island’s average monthly electric bill of $80 would rise about $1.37 to pay for the turbine project. Many small wind projects would be a better strategy, DePetrillo countered.

Several union leaders believe the Deepwater project is the ladder out of Rhode Island’s economic hole. Noting the state’s high unemployment rate, especially in the construction industry, Providence Central Labor Council President Paul McDonald said, “This is one chance we have left in Rhode Island.”

After the hearing, Painters and Allied Trades International Union Business Representative Scott Duhamel noted that as the nation’s first offshore wind farm, the Deepwater project could lead to many more, “If we are the first ones in, we could do this for the whole East Coast.” With more projects, Deepwater might build a turbine manufacturing plant at Quonset Point, Duhamel continued, that the company promises will include a unionized work force.

Durand has other job-creating visions. In an interview, he told the Times he emailed Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation urging that the cable connecting the project with Block Island be paid for with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds.

“There’s no reason the country can’t afford to pay for that cable,” said Durand. He said that if the federal government had money for the banks and Wall Street it should also have funds for a cable to Block Island. All citizens pay for the on-shore power grid, he noted, and all citizens should pay for the impending offshore grid that will start with the Block Island cable.

The PUC has made no decision on apportioning the cable’s cost between Block Islanders residents and the rest of the state’s electric customers. Should the PUC approve the Deepwater contract, it will consider the cable question next.