2013-10-03 / Front Page

Offshore Wind Not Without Controversy

By Daniel Highet


"We’re talking about public trust resources whose exclusive rights are being given to a private corporation,” stated Attorney Terence Tierney, an environmental law expert representing plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Coastal Resources Management Council and its treatment of Block Island residents' concerns over Deepwater Wind's proposed Block Island Wind Farm. (Artist's rendering above). The case is before R.I. Superior Court. "We’re talking about public trust resources whose exclusive rights are being given to a private corporation,” stated Attorney Terence Tierney, an environmental law expert representing plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Coastal Resources Management Council and its treatment of Block Island residents' concerns over Deepwater Wind's proposed Block Island Wind Farm. (Artist's rendering above). The case is before R.I. Superior Court. They will stretch 660 feet above the waters off Block Island, measuring 24 stories taller than the “Superman building” on Westminster Street in downtown Providence. As the United States’ first offshore wind farm, they are historic; the realization of goals set by the Obama administration to increase the country’s renewable energy resources, they will produce 100 million kilowatt hours annually. However, the five wind turbines comprising the Block Island Wind Farm, a demonstration scale project that Rhode Island-based Deepwater Wind will construct only 2.8 miles from Block Island’s south shore, is not without controversy. And a Newport based environmental law expert, attorney Terence Tierney, is at the center of the tempest.

Tierney represents one Narragansett and four Block Island residents who have submitted a complaint in R.I. Superior Court seeking an injunction and temporary restraining order that would require the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) to allow their participation in the agency's administrative review concerning Deepwater Wind’s Block Island Wind Farm. He is a former special assistant in the R.I. Attorney General's office where he served in the Environmental Unit for over 20 years. The CRMC’s primary responsibility is the preservation, protection, development, and restoration of the coastal areas of the state, via permits issued for work within its coastal zone. At issue is a substantial loss in value of the Block Island residents’ properties, associated loss of rental income for some, and diminished use and enjoyment of their property and proximate public resources, such as the Block Island Town Beach.

One plaintiff has objected to Deepwater Wind’s proposed installation of electric transmission lines connecting the wind turbines to submarine cables that would make landfall at Narragansett Beach and within 50 feet of his condominium complex.

At press time, Deepwater, in response to pressure from local townspeople and elected officials, was seeking to secure an agreement with the state Department of Environmental Management that would allow it to bury the transmission cable under Scarborough State Beach and then connect it to the regional power grid operated by National Grid. Deepwater Wind plans to begin transmission construction as early as 2014 and offshore construction in 2015.

“The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council is rubber-stamping this as fast as they can,” stated Tierney in an interview with Newport This Week. “This is not an open and transparent process,” Tierney continued. “It is a process that excludes virtually everyone but the applicant,” referring to Deepwater Wind.

Jeffrey Grybowski, who previously served as chief of staff under former Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, is the chief executive officer of Deepwater Wind. According to an independent expert hired by the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, the Deepwater Wind project is expected to inject over $100 million in eco nomic activity in the state and create approximately 200 local construction jobs.

Another source, a Block Island businessman close to the litigation, shed doubt on the employment projections and in particular called into question the endgame economic savings. He agrees that Block Islanders would save up to 40 percent in energy costs when they abandon diesel-powered generators for wind. However, because the turbines will generate more electricity than the island’s 1800 residents can use, the surplus will be sent to the mainland. He claimed Rhode Islanders would then end up paying for wind energy at a rate far above market value as compared to traditional resources. The real beneficiaries will be Deepwater Wind and National Grid, he said.

“This is a giveaway to insiders,” he said, “and what they’re giving away is the keys to the ocean floor for economic gain.”

A CRMC subcommittee recently voted to deny the plaintiffs’ request to intervene, stating in a motion, “it creates another bar, another slow down” to the review process.

Tierney’s clients sought to appeal that decision before the full council of the CRMC. However, on April 5, 2013, the R.I. Ocean Special Area Management Plan Subcommittee, “unanimously voted to deny intervener status to everyone who sought to intervene,” according to the recorded minutes of a CRMC meeting held in Providence in May. The CRMC then adopted that recommendation, which affirmed the council’s decision. OSAMP conducts research to foster an ecosystem that is both ecologically sound and economically beneficial, creating a framework for coordinated decision-making between state and federal management agencies. The R.I. Ocean Special Area Management (OSAMP) team is partly comprised of CRMC management and University of Rhode Island oceanography experts and educational leaders.

Beth Milham is a co-chair of the City of Newport Energy and Environment Commission, whose mission is to advise the city council and educate the public on renewable energy and efficiency. During a phone interview, Milham expressed her belief in the credibility of the OSAMP team in siting the Block Island Wind Farm.

“Ocean SAMP people are topnotch,” stated Milham, “and took every possible consideration in selecting a location. I don’t buy the viewshed argument,” she said, referring to the point of view that areas of scenic or historic value are deemed worthy of preservation— in this case, in spite of the global repercussions of fossil fuel scarcity or climate change.

In addition to the Block Island wind project, Deepwater also plans to develop the Deepwater Wind Energy Center (DWEC), a utility-scale wind farm of up to 200 turbines with a regional transmission system linking Long Island, New York, to southeastern New England. Deepwater was the winner in a competitive lease auction held by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The winning bid for the two parcels totaling more than 164,000 acres was $3.8 million.

“We’re talking about public trust resources whose exclusive rights are being given to a private corporation,” commented Tierney.

Construction on DWEC in the federal waters of southern Rhode Island Sound could begin as early as 2017, with commercial operations launching by 2018. According to Deepwater Wind projections, DWEC will produce enough electricity to power approximately 350,000 homes and displace over 1.7 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. But, unlike the Block Island Wind Farm project, most DWEC turbines will be positioned more than 20 miles from land. DWEC is sited in the Atlantic Ocean on the Outer Continental Shelf 30 miles east of Montauk, New York, and approximately 15 miles southwest of Martha’s Vineyard.

In a phone interview, a spokesperson for Deepwater Wind, Meaghan Wims, emphasized that the Block Island Wind Farm will finally connect Block Island to the mainland grid, will reduce carbon emissions with the gradual decommissioning of its diesel generators, and is projected to save island residents up to 40 percent in electricity rates.

Asked why Deepwater Wind selected the waters off Block Island for the demo project, when it might have sited the five wind turbines where DWEC will be located, Wims stated, “That was in accordance with the Joint Development Agreement the company has with the state of Rhode Island.”

Wims also shared a letter to the editor that Grybowski, the Deepwater Wind CEO, had written to the Block Island Times. Grybowski disputed the widespread allegations that Block Islanders were uninformed about the project or that townspeople were intentionally disenfranchised from the review process.

Asked why Deepwater Wind had not offered the plaintiffs compensation for projected economic losses associated with the planned Block Island Wind Farm, Wims declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

Wims also pointed out that the Block Island Wind Farm would position Rhode Island at the center of the emerging offshore wind industry, bringing hundreds of jobs associated with the construction of the utility-scale project in the near future.

Eight years ago, Block Island was honored with the distinction of being named one of the 12 last great places in the Western Hemisphere by the Nature Conservancy. Some believe that accolade will be invalidated if Deepwater Wind’s demo wind farm occupies the island’s southern horizon.

“Not everyone considers wind turbines ugly,” stated Milham, recalling a time five years ago when she and her husband took a crosscountry trip in their hybrid vehicle and saw various wind farms across the Midwest.

“You can have a beautiful view while you’re drowning in a rising ocean,” she said, referencing the dangers of global warming and the choices facing Block Island and the world.

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