For Whom The Wind Blows

In 1999 Maine passed a law that created the state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard, which mandated that 40% of retail electricity sold in the state would come from renewable sources by 2017. In 2009, an additional law established goals for wind energy development in the state that included developing 300 megawatts or more of wind energy in coastal waters by 2020, ramping up to 5,000 megawatts by 2030. Thus far just one wind energy project has been proposed for Maine state waters, the Maine Aqua Ventus development off Monhegan Island. This month Landings begins a series that will look at how other states are treating the prospect of offshore wind projects and how those projects affect fishermen.
In February or March, the proponents of Maine Aqua Ventus (MAV) will begin a hydrographic survey of a proposed electrical cable route from the wind turbine site southeast of Monhegan Island to Port Clyde. The survey faced a loud outcry from local lobstermen when MAV announced it would take place during November, 2017, when lobstering was still going strong in the area.
That outcry was just one in a series of complaints by local fishermen and residents against the project. Many of those objections relate to a perceived failure of communication between the project’s managers and communities other than Monhegan Island. Yet if one looks to southern New England, Deepwater Wind’s Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island, which started generating power in May, 2017, faced similar objections during its development. Yet somehow Deepwater Wind was able to work effectively with communities on the island and mainland as well as fishermen.
The five 6-megawatt turbines, located three miles southeast of the island, are successfully producing electricity for every home on Block Island and returning excess energy to National Grid. Islanders’ electricity costs have dropped and the island’s diesel power plant is closed, eliminating about 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually.
How did they do it?
Lobsterman Bill McElroy was chair of the Fisheries Advisory Board of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), the state’s regulatory agency for projects in state waters. The CRMC completed Rhode Island’s Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP) in 2010. The document sets out enforceable policies and recommendations to guide CRMC’s decisions on protection and development of the state’s ocean resources.
“Initially we were scared to death at the idea of a wind project because we were afraid what might happen. We were scared a developer would come in and pick a site in essentially a vacuum and turn around and say here you go- like it or leave it. It was the fear of the unknown; we didn’t know what to expect, and of course, we’ve been as an industry beaten up pretty well in the press over the last decade or so. So we saw this as just another possibility of bad news for the industry,” McElroy said in a 2015 interview.
Fishermen, particularly gill netters, and lobstermen were worried that the site chosen would take away key fishing grounds and that construction would disturb fish patterns that they knew like the back of their hands. “The Ocean SAMP provided a vehicle and made it possible for us to discuss our concerns,” McElroy continued. “And you have to give the SAMP and Deepwater credit. That doesn’t mean that any side wins, but at least it provides an opportunity to have a seat at the table and have our issues brought forward and it’s worked out great.”
McElroy believed that by preplanning what would be allowed in state waters, the CRMC provided more, rather than less flexibility for fishermen. “Deepwater chose a site at Block Island to install a certain number of windmills. They came to the industry at the Ocean SAMP, and we pointed out that if they moved a couple of the turbines one way or the other, it would be much less intrusive to the fishing industry,” McElroy explained. “Deepwater was more than willing to do that, once they checked with their engineers and found out it wasn’t going to triple the price of the project or anything like that… So as soon as we saw things like that, it made us realize that we might not get everything we want, but we are getting most of it, and we are getting a seat at the table and have the opportunity to give them our opinion.” Deepwater Wind had a page on its web site dedicated to “information for mariners” where details of current operational activities, vessels, locations and future activities were posted. An independent contractor was also hired to act as a liaison between the fishing community, the CRMC, and Deepwater Wind during the construction phase of the project. More than a dozen R.I. fishermen were compensated for interruptions to their fishing during construction of the project in 2016.
A 2015 report by the Island Institute in Rockland noted several factors that contributed to the relatively smooth development of the Block Island Wind Farm. Specifically, the timing of the project, coming as it did after the CRMC had completed its Ocean SAMP, meant that the hard work of involving everyone – fishermen, environmentalists, communities and other stakeholders — in a planning discussion had been done.
“In addition, Deepwater Wind is a private, not public, entity [headquartered in Providence, R.I.],” said Suzanne MacDonald, community energy director at the Island Institute. “They came in with all the pieces together with the goal of commercial development.” The Monhegan Aqua Ventus proposal, on the other hand, is a public-private partnership between the University of Maine, Cianbro Corporation and the French company Naval Energies Inc. Funding for the project has been closely tied to federal Department of Energy grants, which in turn have influenced the shape and scope of the project during its development.
Another element of great importance was the fact that Deepwater Wind was ready to assist Block Island selectmen in assessing technical aspects of the project, something that a volunteer governmental body from a small community rarely has the skill to do on its own. The Block Island selectmen hired an energy consultant to advise them on the wind farm proposal; Deepwate agreed to reimburse them for that expense. In addition, Deepwater hired a local person as a liaison between the community and the company. Bryan Wilson was readily accessible to island residents with concerns or questions about the project.
As the Island Institute report noted, “The consultants translated pertinent technical details and locally relevant information to the town council. They shared information with the broader community, fielded questions at community meetings, listened to community concerns, and translated these concerns into comments during the formal regulatory processes. The expertise of the consultants provided the town council with greater confidence that community concerns would be better integrateiinto the wind farm planning processes.”
While the Rhode Island Lobstermen’s Association, Rhode Island Sierra Club, and other nonprofit groups were in favor of the project, the residents of Narragansett, through whose town the 21-mile submerged electricity cable from the turbines would pass, were not. A political action committee called Deepwater Resistance formed soon after the project was first proposed. The Narragansett Town Council voted to reject Deepwater’s proposal to have the cable come ashore near the town beach. So Deepwater moved the landing area to state land, the Scarborough State Beach, a move quickly approved by the State Properties Committee.  The director of Deepwater Resistance brought suit against the company saying that his civil rights had been violated during the permitting process. The case was dismissed in Superior Court, then appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court before being denied in early 2015.
Some ratepayers also grumbled about the contract struck between Deepwater Wind and the state’s Public Utilities Commission. To amortize the $300 million price of the wind farm, Deepwater Wind negotiated a 20-year contract with National Grid, the utility company that provides electricity for most of Rhode Island. That contract mandates n 3.5% annual increase in the price of electricity generated by the wind turbines.
When the Block Island Wind Farm began full operation in May, 2017, the project was hailed as a successful renewable energy development and the start of a new industry for Rhode Island. Support for the project extends beyond various environmental organizations and state officials: this past summer Block Island charter boat captains began offering popular at-sea tours, taking eager tourists on two-hour visits to the wind farm.
Next month: offshore wind projects blossom in other East Coast states