Towns to state: keep our wind farm concerns in mind

Mon, 12/08/2008 - 6:00am

Block Island First Warden Kim Gaffett joined town officials from around the state Tuesday in telling Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) representatives that residents would soon be asking how an offshore wind farm would affect their views, property values and utility easements.

The comments came during a meeting of stakeholders that are providing input to the CRMC as it maps the ocean off Rhode Island. Many told the state agency to pay attention to local concerns when weighing offshore wind farm locations.

Known as an Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP), the $3.2 million study is expected to lay the scientific foundation for a wind farm off the coast of Rhode Island that could land within the sights of Block Island residents.

“We are probably one of the communities that will have one of the strongest aesthetic issues,” Gaffett told the group gathered at the University of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay campus.

Gaffett was quick to add that the wind farm being developed by Deepwater Wind could bring relief to the island if the company makes good on a pledge to install an electric cable from the island to the wind farm that would, in turn, connect to the mainland. Such a cable could bring cheaper electric rates for island customers. Last summer they paid the highest electric rates in the nation as the cost of fuel needed to power the island’s diesel generators soared.

But whether such a setup would allow the island to purchase electricity from the mainland grid remains unclear. (Two Deepwater Wind representatives declined to comment after the meeting, saying that they were not authorized to speak to the media. Also, the news that Deepwater CEO Chris Brown had left the company had not yet been made public. See related story on page 1.)

During the meeting, Deepwater Vice President of Development Clint Plummer said the New Jersey-based firm is working with National Grid and the regional grid manager to identify where and how the farm would connect to the mainland grid.

Drawing nods of agreement from other officials, South Kingstown Director of Administrative Services Robin Muksian-Schutt wanted assurances that those connections would cause minimum interference for shoreline residents that may suddenly find themselves living next to new electrical installations.

On a broader scale, Narragansett Town Manager Jeffry Ceasrine cautioned researchers that it would be a “hard sell” to convince fishermen that the potential effects of global warming will have greater consequences on fishing than a wind farm. And others questioned whether the turbines would ruin the historic views of seaside towns and diminish the tourist-based economy.

But not moving ahead with a wind farm could bring worse consequences, said Pam Rubinoff of the Rhode Island Sea Grant program and URI Coastal Resources Center. During a roughly 45-minute presentation she warned the audience — made up of government and tourism officials, fishermen, scientists and others — that global warming perpetrated by fossil fuel use threatened the state’s very way of life.

The CRMC expects the sea level to rise near Rhode Island by three to five feet by 2100, she said. Carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise at an alarming rate and the temperature of the ocean also continues to climb, Rubinoff said.

As glaciers in the Arctic melt, less sun is reflected back into space and more heat remains in the atmosphere. Then the cycle repeats itself, each time growing worse and worse. Soon, Rubinoff said, summers here could feel like those in Virginia or even the Carolinas and fish such as cod will move north seeking colder weather. Flood planes will expand and put more homes at risk and some land will simply erode away, as seen locally at the Mohegan Bluffs.

“We need to step up to the plate to deal with this,” she said. “We have an opportunity through the SAMP.”