Wind farm: eyesore or godsend?
“Block Island could become the first totally green municipality in the nation,” says Danny Mendelsohn, a member of the team that conducted the Rhode Island Wind Siting Study.
Mendelsohn, who works for Applied Technology and Management in Newport, Steve Weisman, of the Peregrine Energy Group, and Rhode Island Commissioner of Energy Resources Andy Dzykewicz visited the island Thursday, November 8, and Saturday, November 10, at the request of Town Council member Peter Baute. They answered questions about the state’s proposal to build a wind farm in the ocean off Rhode Island. Locations south and west of Block Island are under consideration.
The proposal is part of an effort to reach Governor Donald Carcieri’s goal of supplying 15 percent of Rhode Island’s electricity from alternative sources.
About 30 members of the public and the Town Council attended Thursday’s session, and approximately 60 were in attendance Saturday.
Much of the presentation focused on the study that examined the entire state, both on land and offshore, in a search for the best sites to place a wind farm. The study said that 95 percent of the best wind energy potential lay off the coast.
In all, the study identified 10 locations offshore comprising 98 square miles; 75 percent of which is in state waters (the rest is in federal waters). The group determined that the ideal locations in terms of wind velocity and economic feasibility were off the southwest coast of Block Island and Little Compton.
The criteria for offshore areas are that they be at least eight feet deep in order to run barges during construction, and no more than 75 feet deep to be economically feasible. Final selection, Dzykewicz said, would depend in part on public acceptance of the project.
The Block Island locales
There are two areas, designated as “J” and “K” on the project maps, off the south and southwest coast of Block Island that the study shows have an average wind speed of 9.25 miles per hour.
The closer location, K, a total of 13.14 square miles, lying in state waters immediately off the island’s southern beaches, would be approximately a mile from shore; the second location, J, made up of 12.94 square miles, is further west in federal waters, three miles offshore.
The preliminary plan calls for 56 turbines in each area; a total of approximately 112 turbines if both areas were used.
In the best-case scenario for the island, the project would result in an underwater cable running from the turbines to the mainland that would branch to Block Island, bringing electricity from the wind farm. And when there is no wind, electricity could then be delivered from the mainland back through the cable. The cost of island power would then theoretically drop considerably, and, it was suggested, could even disappear.
“If we support this, how do we guarantee that we’ll be hooked up?” Bill Penn asked from the audience.
“Do you want to guarantee it?” Dzykewicz asked. “Tell us we can put a substation where your power plant is.”
“Come and talk to us,” said Block Island Power Company head Cliff McGinnes Sr.
Later, McGinnes said he was very interested in the project.
A wind power farm could also generate jobs on and off the island. Tourism might also increase, as people might come to view the farm. According to Dzykewicz, there is a possibility that the turbines and the blades could be manufactured in Rhode Island.
A towering view
For some, the bad news is that the turbines would be visible from the island, especially from the site closer to shore.
Because there is more wind at higher altitudes, the proposed towers would stand 240 feet to the turbine hub. With the turbine blade at its maximum vertical extension, the height would be 455 feet. The towers, each topped with a light, would have a diameter of 16 feet, and be erected approximately a half-mile apart.
Construction of the towers, which would be built to withstand a 100-year storm and 20-foot waves, would take a minimum of two years. Each tower would be mounted to the sea floor, held with pilings driven 50-90 feet into the seabed. The drilling machine would probably be loud, it was said.
A computer-generated image portraying how the turbines might look from the island was presented. Beth Fitzpatrick, a consultant for the Block Island Power Company, was skeptical about their accuracy.
“How did you scale them?” she asked. “They look small.”
Pictures of a wind farm off the coast of Denmark were also shown, and the consensus among those in attendance was that they are large and would be quite visible from shore.
Mendelsohn said that people in Denmark were also worried about the views when the turbines were built, but that tourism had increased afterward. He added that the towers had not interfered with sailing there.
The Coast Guard, Wiesman said, has reported that the turbines are not loud. The sound might be audible, a “whoosh-whoosh,” and when there is fog, foghorns will sound around the edges of the two farms.
From the audience, Elliot Taubman suggested, “Give us the sound and get better pictures in scale.”
Three Black Rock-area residents were not sure whether they would support or oppose the project.
“Would property values be affected?” Judy Connelly asked.
Wiesman replied that they might, but they could change in either direction.
Marcia and Mary Ann Wilbur wondered whether there would be an effect on tourism, as “most of that side is preserved, open space.”
Steve Robison recalled the wind turbine that was erected landside near Corn Neck Road. “It was the noise that bothered me. The view, I got used to. It wasn’t a problem.”
“If Block Island got the project, would we get free power in exchange for losing our viewshed?” Town Councilor Dick Martin asked Thursday.
Dzykewicz made no promises, but replied that that might be “negotiable.”
At Saturday’s presentation, Southwest Point resident Chick Marcoux spoke in favor of the Block Island farms. Marcoux suggested that the group provide a cost analysis to make clear to island residents what they could gain in exchange for allowing turbines in their viewshed: clean energy at a much reduced price and a cable to the mainland that would provide for two-way electricity delivery. These are items the town and BIPCo would likely never be able to afford on their own, Marcoux said after the meeting. With skyrocketing oil prices and another request for a rate hike from BIPCo, it only makes sense to seriously consider the proposed farms, he said.
Five firms have already indicated an interest in developing and running the project, and two venture capital firms in financing it. The state, Dzykewicz said, wants a guaranteed price for the electricity for 20 years. Not running it to the Northeast’s power grid would help keep the price low for consumers, because when it goes into the pool, there is a set price for any returned to the state, he said.
The project is a wonderful opportunity for Block Island and Rhode Island, but it won’t be built without public support, Dzykewicz said. “We’re not looking for a battle. If Rhode Islanders don’t want a wind project, we won’t do it. But, if a community comes forward to ask for it, wouldn’t it be wonderful?”
Keep wheels spinning forward
The next step, said Dzykewicz by phone earlier this week, is to begin the permitting process with six to eight different agencies, both state and federal. Through that process, the viability of the 10 different sites will become more apparent.
He stressed, however, that the preliminary plan is just that — and whatever sites are chosen, the stakeholders would work collaboratively to refine the project. That means that if the Block Island sites were chosen, it’s likely that the closer site would be pulled further offshore and the turbine grouping would be tighter and less spread-out, Dzykewicz said.
Mendelsohn added that it would make most sense from an “economy of scale” standpoint for two neighboring areas to be constructed jointly. To build one farm off Block Island and another off Little Compton would not make sense economically because of the distance in between and two sets of cables to the mainland.
Right now, Mendelsohn said, a wind farm combining areas J and K off Block Island would be economically competitive with current market rates for electricity.
Dzykewicz said the next stakeholders meeting will likely be scheduled once there is a consultant on board and the scope of work for requests for proposals is being decided; that would likely mean three months away at the earliest.
He’d like to move quickly: “the price [of this equipment] goes up every day” because of “so much demand,” said Dzykewicz. He would like to “get in line” as soon as possible.
On Thursday, November 15, the Providence Journal reported that a New York company, Allco Renewable Energy Group Limited, had applied with the Coastal Resources Management Council to place between 200 and 300 wind turbines off Block Island, Watch Hill and Little Compton.