Weighing wind farm impact on R.I.’s offshore environment

Mon, 05/04/2009 - 4:15am
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05/02/09 - The Rhode Island Natural History Survey’s 13th annual Conference on April 23 was devoted entirely to the environmental impacts wind farms could pose off the coast of Rhode Island — and Block Island in particular.

Fourteen speakers took to the lecturn, including Governor Donald Carcieri. The international cast spoke on a wide range of subjects, cutting across a variety of disciplines.

Two years ago Carcieri proposed the state generate 15 percent of its energy needs from alternative sources. This led the state to engage developer Deepwater Wind, which is proposing two wind farms near Block Island. The first, a small cluster with perhaps four or five turbines a few miles to the southeast of the island, and the second a much larger installation 15 miles east of the island.

The governor said that Rhode Island was “ideally suited” to establish the first offshore wind farm in the nation. He said other governors along the coast have contacted him about the project.

The mood of the day was one of tempered enthusiasm, with many pointing out that the Northeast had a surfeit of wind, and it was time the state, and the nation, take advantage of it.

The scientists on the whole cautiously offered their views that large offshore wind farms would not upset the balance of the natural world.

‘Boulders the size of houses’

Coastal Resources Management Council Executive Director Grover Fugate explained the Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) study being conducted in conjunction with the University of Rhode Island to pinpoint optimal wind farm locales. The study will consider wind, current, sea floor features, shipping lanes, fishing areas and “existing users” such as birds, fish, turtles and mammals. Fugate acknowledged that a lot of “best guesses” would result from the $3.2 million study. He pointed out that the pile driving required for wind turbine platforms could be difficult in soil containing “boulders the size of houses” left over from the glacial age.

Kristopher Winiarski of URI said 11 coastal bird observation stations have been set up stretching from the west in Watch Hill, to the east in Sakonnet. In addition, since February, a bird observation team has been traveling on the Block Island ferry once a week. The teams have also chartered boats to explore east and west of the island. The teams have identified 43 bird species in the area to date.

Dr. Tony Fox spoke about his role in collecting bird data near two of the world’s very first offshore wind farms off the coast of Denmark. One was the Horns Rev farm — consisting of 80 two-megawatt turbines. He applauded the SAMP efforts, and remarked that his group was able to establish baseline bird data for three years before and three years after the Danish wind farms were in place.

He said that “birds really avoided” the farms. And, perhaps most importantly, he found that collision rates were quite low, estimating that approximately 0.0002 percent of passing birds would collide with a blade. That would translate, he said, to 41 to 48 eider ducks out of a flock of 235,000 being lost to “collision mortality” — low compared to 80,000-plus eider ducks killed by Danish hunters in a year.

Fox’s conclusion was that while the farms caused birds to alter their behavior, they did not have “any real biological effect.” However, he cautioned that more wind farms displacing more habitats and migration routes could change that estimation, especially in combination with land-based habitat loss.

Jack Clarke, of the Massachusetts Audobon Society, recalled the society’s role in the Cape Wind process in the waters of Nantucket Sound.

He said ocean off the Northeast was a “Saudi Arabia of wind power.” He said the United States generates 25 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, but still has no offshore wind farm. The Massachusetts Audobon Society eventually supported the Cape Wind project once it was satisfied that the wind turbines would not be “a Cuisinart for coastal birds,” or a detriment to other marine life.

Underwater acoustics expert Frank Thomsen said that explorer Jacques Cousteau had it wrong when he titled his famous book, “The Silent World.”

According to Thomsen, the ocean is far from a quiet realm; rather, it is a great conductor of sound, and many organisms have adapted to utilize sound for communicating, locating prey, navigating, etc.

Pile driving during wind farm construction would be of most concern, Thomsen said. The question is not whether marine animals would respond — they likely will — but what effect would the sound ultimately have upon their populations. He will conduct experiments on sole and cod in a fjord in Scotland this summer to better understand the effects.

However, he noted that for the last four decades pile driving has occurred in the North Sea for oil platform construction, and it has not appeared to have adversely affected marine organisms.

Both Stephen Hale of the Environmental Protection Agency and Caroly Shawmut of The Nature Conservancy said that the waters off southern New England — and Rhode Island in particular — enjoy some of the highest biomass diversity and density on the East Coast. This is due, Shawmut explained, to the collision of the Acadian and Virginian bio-geographic regions in the waters off Rhode Island. That translates to a happy confluence of warm water creatures swimming north, and coldwater creatures heading south, off the Rhode Island coast.

These findings were confirmed by an ambitious eco-regional assessment of an area stretching from the Bay of Fundy in Canada to Cape Hatteras, where 10 teams assessed coastal, benthic and pelagic habitats.

Marine scientist Les Kaufman of Boston University said that marine life would accumulate on the underwater sections of the wind farm platforms. This would create reef systems and lead to a “rug of mouths” — “hot spots” where all manner of underwater life would congregate and blossom. Kaufman, using scientific parlance, called the phenomenon “trophic amplification.”

Kaufman cautioned farm planners to establish a protocol for how to retire platforms when and if the technology becomes obsolete. He said that experience from the oil industry suggests that the structures should be left in place since they have become hosts and epicenters of essential biomass. Kaufman even suggested supplementing the area with more material.

Meredith Blaydes Lilly, from the Center For Carbon-free Power Integration at the University of Delaware, polled out-of-state tourists at a number of popular Delaware beach locales. She found that wind farms would indeed affect tourism, driving a certain number of visitors away from the state. However, she said there would be a net tourism increase due to many who said they would be interested in traveling to Delaware specifically to see the farms, or even take tours.

Megan Higgins, from the Marine Affairs Institute at the Roger Williams University School of Law, touched upon the complicated permitting processes involved with such a project. She lauded, as did others, the Obama administration’s release the day before of a long-awaited set of regulations for alternative energy endeavors that streamlined the permitting processes and clarified what agencies had purview.

Rounding out the day’s program was Rodney Cluck, the Federal Minerals Management Service manager for the Cape Wind Project. He kept the crowd entertained as he recounted the many ups and downs involved in the MMS efforts to conduct environmental impact studies for the project — which generated 42,000 comments and is still a political hot potato.

Earlier in the day the RINHS bestowed a Distinguished Naturalist Award to plant ecologist Lisa Lofland Gould. Previous winners include names familiar to Block Island residents: Elizabeth Dickens and Les Sirkin (both awarded posthumously), as well as Elise Lapham.