Wind farm debate continues

Mon, 05/31/2010 - 4:00am
Category: 

05/29/10 - Last Thursday morning some 60 people gathered at St. Andrew Parish Center to hear from several island residents on matters related to the proposed Block Island wind farm. Billed as an informational session, the meeting was arranged by Patricia Doyle, who had attended the House hearings in Providence on May 12.

Doyle said she was “so moved by the process of the hearing,” learned so much about government in action and was so impressed by testimony given that she wanted to share the information with an island audience. She also indicated a number of friends and neighbors had expressed dismay that there seemed to be a great deal of misinformation going about and that they wished it “could be sorted out.”

In March, the state Public Utilities Commission turned down a contract reached between Deepwater Wind and National Grid for electricity that would come from a proposed eight-turbine within three miles of Block Island. At 24.4 cents per kilowatt-hour, the PUC determined the power too costly for the state’s ratepayers. (Block Island’s rates were not involved, because Block Island is not affiliated with National Grid.)

In the wake of the decision, the PUC called for a docket to explore a stand-alone cable (not attached to a wind farm project) to the island to address crippling electricity costs. Meanwhile, bills have been introduced in the General Assembly that would allow the Deepwater Block Island project to stay alive by circumventing the PUC approval process.

Seeking transparency

“I’m glad to see we have people here on both sides of the issue. Let’s have a transparent process!” said Doyle to those gathered. A number of people pointed out that the eight-turbine farm was being depicted as “a demonstration project” and they asked for clarification. Both Governor Donald Carcieri and Deepwater have urged the necessity of doing the smaller farm three miles off the island coast as preliminary to the larger wind project proposed for 10 to 15 miles away.

Among the first to speak was Maggie Delia, a homeowner on the island’s southeast side, who has been visiting the island for 32 years. Describing the concerns that led her and her husband Michael to become interveners in the PUC process, she said, “When the windmill first came on the radar, initially it seemed like it was going to be good for the island. Then as I read about it, it went from 16 cents [per kWh] to 24 cents and to even higher costs.”

In addition to the rates, Delia grew concerned about the impact on the view. “We used to be able to see the ocean, to see the night. Are we willing to have renewable energy at any cost? We’re about to destroy what is unique and rare,” she said. Rather, she suggested the island might better invest its time into and energy pursuing the larger wind farm farther away from the island.

Delia noted that the PUC, when it rejected the contract between National Grid and Deepwater in March — seemingly ending the state’s quest for the small wind farm off Block Island — had not closed the door to that option. Delia read from the commission’s statement: “The commission’s decision in this matter should not and must not be read as a rejection of Deepwater or the state’s desire to invest in off-shore wind technology. All indications in this docket are that a utility scale project could achieve better economies of scale that might result in a PPA (power purchase agreement) with commercially reasonable terms and pricing.”

Island resident Kathy Payne said, “I don’t care about windmills or about cables. [Sen. Susan] Sosnowski and [Rep. Donna] Walsh don’t work for us. We should remain private and sovereign — perhaps buy the company. Everything should stay on Block Island.”

Asking the right questions?

Concern about numbers was less an issue for Dorrie Napoleone, who said, “Even if Deepwater were a not-for-profit company, are we asking the right questions? Are wind turbines a good thing for the island or not? What’s our long-term solution going to be?”

Mohegan Trail resident Michael Beauregard spoke to the group as a homeowner and financial expert. Prefacing his remarks, he said, “I have no financial interests in any aspect of this.”

Beauregard said he had read through the entire PUC ruling and suggested others do the same. “There are no sides to this issue,” said Beauregard. “Our goal is to get the best rates for the island … and turbines won’t give you lower electric rates, but a [stand-alone] cable can.”

When an audience member said he was perplexed by the disagreement in the numbers put forward by each side, Beauregard noted there was “a protective order in place that protects against full disclosure by the parties to the hearing — in this case protecting confidential issues for Deepwater. Still it’s important to have knowledge about return on dollars invested.”

To that end he pointed out he had “calculated the unlevered [figured without debt] return on Deepwater’s $45 million of investment to be approximately 18 percent, generating approximately $125 million.”

Sean McGarry asked, “Does anyone know what the distribution or kilowatt costs will be [on the island]?” Using the figure assumed by the PUC, Beauregard said it would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 22 to 24 cents. Though that figure is lower than the current electricity rates on the island, around 44 cents per kWh, the cost of the cable to the mainland was not included in the calculation.

A stand-alone cable?

McGarry said he had heard that the PUC “stated a cable needed to be considered for the island.”

First Warden Kim Gaffett replied, “We’re totally willing to look at a cable. The PUC asked Block Island Power Company to do a distribution study.”

(The PUC was to open a discussion of the cable on Thursday, May 27; the Block Island Times will provide a full report next week.)

Continuing, Gaffett said, “Our distribution system is aged and upgrades and renovations are needed.” The PUC had asked BIPCo to conduct a study a number of years ago, but the power company objected that it would be too expensive. “No matter which way we go, we need a distribution upgrade, and you’re still going to be buying power from BIPCo,” said Gaffett.

However, she added: “If we get a cable through the wind farm, we get renewable energy; we don’t know what the costs will be. But if Block Island is part of it, I think it’s pretty great!”

One thing the island has: its beauty

For many the concern with the stand-alone cable would be that the island would still be using fossil fuels for its power — except it would be coming from the mainland instead of the island. Beauregard noted that individuals could select non-fossil choices, but their rates would increase.

On the issue of legislation that would reintroduce the Block Island Wind Farm by essentially overturning the PUC’s ruling, Edie Blane said, “I think it’s deplorable what Senator Sosnowski has done. I don’t think it’s a good bill, and this is the first time that I’ve agreed [with opponents of the wind farm]. Reluctantly, I’ll agree. I thought [the wind farm] was going to be further off. Block Island has only one thing: that’s its beauty.”

Insisting he did not intend to editorialize, Beauregard said he just wanted to pass on information. With that, he said “The night before the PUC decision, Deepwater submitted final visuals.”

Deepwater Chief Development Officer Paul Rich countered that the company had been placing visuals at Town Hall and a number of other locations “since June of last year.”

Rich further expressed concern about a recent ad placed in the Block Island Times that he felt was a distortion, resulting in magnifying the size of the proposed wind turbine. This comment generated a number of disavowals of any intentional distortion.

Jim Hinthorn expressed impatience with both sides. He pointed to a survey taken last summer to gauge island acceptance of wind farms.

“I could accept the survey if it took into consideration people’s qualifications. And your pictures did you more disservice. We need to think about what’s in the best interest of the island. What do we need to do? Really, we’re unable to get economics that we can trust.”

Of the possible visual distortions, McGarry suggested people stand at the “poop shoot” near the Spring House and look toward Clay Head, three miles away. He said Clay Head was approximately 100 feet above sea level, adding that “the turbines and their rotors reach 508 feet at low tide,” approximately five times the height of Clay Head.

A question of jobs

Several audience members expressed their belief that the eight-turbine project would bring a large number of jobs to Rhode Island. However, Rich said his company had “never over-promised numbers of employees.” He explained that for the second phase of the project — approximately 100 windmills 10 to 15 miles off shore — there would be hundreds of employees needed. However, for the first phase he said, “We only need six; most of the technology is manufactured in Europe.”

Rich expressed his gratitude to Doyle for arranging the meeting. “It’s good to have this dialogue,” he said. “We’re obviously a company, but we’re concerned about wind energy. It’s your community, but we are not promoting distortions. We are very open about the challenges and benefits of this project.”

In response to audience concern about siting of the wind farm, Deepwater’s on-island representative Bryan Wilson pointed out, “There are two proposed sites: another one off Lewis Farm.”

Reached after the meeting, Beauregard expressed his dismay about the proposed legislation. “Changing the laws after the determination of a judicial body for the benefit of the losing party is bad economic development policy. The unpredictable results will cause investors to hesitate to invest in Rhode Island,” he said.

Also, in a post-script to the meeting, Gaffett said, “Though some think we’re sacrificing for renewable energy, I think about it differently. We could be nearly 100 percent powered by it and how great that would be — for the smallest town in the smallest state to be setting an example for the nation.”

Doyle thought the meeting went well, bringing together people of all stripes and “allowing them an opportunity for civil dialogue” about an issue that seemed to be dividing the community.