State permits mean uncharted waters ahead for Deepwater
It’s going to be a year of paper pushing, information gathering and public hearings for Deepwater Wind, the Providence-based company planning a $250 million project: a five-turbine wind farm three miles off Block Island’s southern shore, plus a submarine electric transmission cable to link it to National Grid.
The company is at the start of its permitting process. Already submitted are applications to New Shoreham Planning and Zoning Boards for a substation at Block Island Power Company and buried transmission lines from BIPCo to Town Beach, where the submarine cable will make landfall. The local boards are expected to make a determination within the next two months.
Next up, Deepwater must escalate its permitting efforts by submitting applications to a number of state and federal agencies, including the state Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and at least three federal agencies: the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps of Engineers.
BOEM has the job of reviewing the application for the part of the submarine transmission cable that falls in federal waters. These types of cables are commonplace in the Northeast and the country in general.
The EPA will perform a National Environmental Policy Act review of the submarine cable that falls within state waters. This also is a common review process.
First application for the state SAMP
Things will likely get more interesting with the applications for the offshore wind farm itself, which fall largely in untested bureaucratic waters.
The Army Corp and CRMC will hold a joint agency review of the installation of the wind farm itself, said CRMC Executive Director Grover Fugate. That review will be based on information collected by Deepwater and by the recommendations of Rhode Island’s Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP), adopted in October 2010 by the CRMC and as yet an unused roadmap for offshore wind turbine installations. The SAMP establishes a “Renewable Energy Zone” in state waters off the island’s southern coast. Deepwater’s five-turbine wind farm is proposed to fall within the easterly portion of that zone.
Deepwater has also been gathering its own information, which it plans to submit with its application. The company says it spent a total of $5 million in the fall of 2011 on surveys of the sea floor and marine environments where its cable and turbines will lie, as well as of the landward routes of its cable. The cable, expected to cost $40 to $50 million, will run underwater from Block Island Town Beach to Narragansett Pier. Its overland portions will run largely underground, joining the BIPCo transmission station to a National Grid transmission line near the Wakefield Mall. It will be owned by National Grid.
Deepwater’s surveys include bird and bat studies that have been on going for the last several years, which use radar to track bird and bat movement around the island to determine if the turbines would pose a risk to those animals. It also includes studies of the ocean floor that look for marine habitats, shipwrecks and other culturally significant areas, such as submerged Native American settlements.
Deepwater has used different types of sonar to study the ocean floor and just this month completed a vibracore study of both the wind farm site and the cable routes. The vibracore extracts a cylinder of sediment from the ocean floor that is used to determine the conditions below the surface layer.
There’ll be opportunities for stakeholders and the public to have a say on the applications at the state level. The CRMC and Army Corp will have public notices and comment periods, as well as multiple public hearings. Fugate said the CRMC would likely hold public hearings on Block Island and in South County. After the public hearing process, the agencies will make a ruling on the application. The Council’s decision will be appealable to the Rhode Island Superior Court.
The DEM will review a number of aspects of the project and is currently in a pre-application phase where it is determining the various permits Deepwater will need. At a minimum, the project will require a Water Quality Certificate for the installation of the turbines and the submarine cables, according to DEM Communications Director Gail Mastrati. The certificate is issued to ensure the project complies with the State Water Quality Regulations and the Clean Water Act.
The Block Island substation, which will cost $9.3 million to construct, might also require several permits due to its location adjacent to a wetland, including a wetlands permit and storm water construction permit. The cable landfall in Narragansett might also require state wetlands and storm water permits.
But there are further unknowns, going back to the island utility’s history of trouble with the DEM. In October of 2001 BIPCo was fined $25,200 for violations pertaining to corrosion protection upgrade requirements, precision testing, installation of spill containment basins, overfill protection, written inventory records and permanent closure of an underground storage tank system without prior approval.
Members of the Planning Board said at a recent meeting that the site could require remediation for potentially contaminated soils, chemicals leaching into the soil from its underground fuel storage tanks and from fill used to build an access road across a wetland.
The DEM is working with Deepwater to determine exactly which permits will ultimately be required before the company submits its application. Deepwater’s Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Grybowski said the company expects the entire permitting process to take all of 2012 and continue into 2013.
During that time Deepwater will continue internal work on the engineering of both the submarine cables and the jacket structures that will support the wind turbines. Due to variation in the ocean floor topography, the support jackets for the turbines — metal frames that are anchored to the sea floor — have to be individually designed.
The company will also finalize its contract with National Grid for construction of the submarine cable connecting Block Island to the mainland. Grybowski said there would be public filings required, which will report the cost of the installation — currently estimated between $40 million and $50 million. Grybowski said Deepwater is striving to have this done by mid summer; however, he cautioned that it could come later.
In 2011 Deepwater announced that it would be using a new 6 Megawatt turbine from Siemens USA, a Washington D.C. based turbine manufacturer, in the Block Island project. It also announced a new investor late last year but declined to name it until the deal is finalized.
“Over the course of the year we will continue the process of selecting final vendors for various parts of the project,” Grybowski said. “We will be putting a fine team together.”
Financing the project has become more difficult due to the expiration of a federal tax credit at the end of last year. A bi-partisan group of senators have submitted legislation to extend that tax credit. It is currently awaiting action by the Senate Finance Committee.
“We will be weighing in in Washington to advocate for clean energy tax credits,” Grybowski said, but maintained that the Block Island project could move forward without them. “Given the wind farm’s size we will be able to explore alternative ways to finance the project.”
With early permitting already begun, 2012 will likely be the busiest time and will reveal the most about the Block Island wind farm since it was first proposed in 2008.