Surveys show wind farm approval growing over time

Fri, 09/14/2018 - 9:00am

Jeremy Firestone, Director of the Center for Carbon-free Power Integration at the University of Delaware, has been studying offshore wind power for the past 15 years. Given that the United States has, to date, just five off shore wind turbines, Firestone jokingly said, “That’s one turbine every... oh, it’s been slow.”

Firestone was at the Island Free Library on Thursday, Sept. 6, to discuss the results of three surveys, one done during each of the past three years beginning in 2016. 

What Firestone said he was trying to understand, through the multitude of questions the survey contained, was whether people — both island and mainland residents — felt the Block Island Wind Farm “is consistent with the place its in, or is it incompatible?”

First, Firestone said he wanted to give some context. He said he was a supporter of wind energy. He said it produces “zero pollution” and was a “very competitive way to produce energy.” He believed that the federal lease areas that were in the pipeline for the east coast would produce something like two gigawatts to as much as 10 gigawatts of power, noting that the five-turbine project off Block Island is a 30 megawatt project. He said the turbines off Block Island, which are 630 feet tall with the blade extended upward, “would seem small” to what will be built in the future. “The bigger the machine, the cheaper it is to produce energy,” Firestone said.

That said, Firestone said the surveys were meant to gauge some insight into the process of building the wind farm: Was the process fair? Was there developer transparency? How does it impact other uses of the sea, such as boating and fishing? He said the survey included mainland responses because “nearby communities can differ significantly in terms of their relationship to the sea.”

The survey showed that the beach gives people their sense of place and, in some cases, it helps define their identities. “Everyone on this island is attached to the sea,” said Firestone.

The survey showed that the top three reasons people visit the beach were for its beauty, because people associate the beach with family time, and because it’s a pristine environment. In that context, Firestone’s survey showed that 40 percent of the respondents said the project was consistent with those values, while 17 percent said it was not.

Firestone said the first survey was completed in the summer of 2016, with a total of 672 responses; in winter of 2017 with 420 responses; and winter of 2018 with 436 responses. He said there were a total of 336 responses to all three surveys, with a total of 91 homes responding on Block Island.

In the broadest sense, the survey showed increased support, and diminishing opposition, to the wind farm over time. In 2016, 70.3 percent of Block Island respondents said they favored the wind farm. In 2018, that figure was 82.3 percent. Opposition from island residents went from 18 percent in 2016 to 11.1 percent in 2018.

On the mainland, support went from 58.8 percent in favor to 68.5 percent over the same period of time.

Some of the data Firestone presented was confusing to those in attendance. When asked for reasons why people either supported or opposed the project, reasons for support ranged from renewable energy, to rates, to impact on environmental quality. Reasons for opposing were cost, environmental quality, and impact on marine wildlife.

The biggest reason for opposition came under the header “internet,” and with little context to the answer it was difficult for Firestone or the members of the audience to decipher just what that meant. Firestone also said that a total of 8.7 percent of the respondents said they “had changed the beach they visit because of the turbines,” but again it was difficult to determine whether that meant people were migrating to get away from the turbines, or going instead to a beach where they were more visible.

Firestone also said he had not done a survey since ratepayers started to receive electric bills over a longer period of time, and there have been no questions asked since the exposure of the cables at Fred Benson Town Beach was discovered.

Not surprisingly, those who support the project felt the turbines themselves were “impressive” and “amazing,” while those who oppose felt they were “too big” and “unattractive.”