By Abel Collins
Last night, Corless Auditorium on the University of Rhode Island's Bay Campus was packed with more than 100 supporters and opponents of the proposed Block Island Wind Farm (BIWF) who turned out to a Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) committee meeting held there to consider the project. The hearing, which started at 4 p.m., lasted until around 8 o’clock in the evening, but most of the time was taken up by Deepwater Wind detailing the installation process and environmental impacts of the project. The majority of the 60 people that signed up to speak will have to wait for the committee to meet again later this month. A final decision by the full CRMC is not expected until early in the Spring.
Deepwater Wind, LLC, the offshore wind development company that is bound by law to build the 5 Turbine/30 Megawatt wind farm, laid out a thorough summary of the engineering of the project, which has entailed 19 different studies on issues ranging from marine mammals to birds and bats, to visual impact. The six speakers from Deepwater, including CEO Jeff Grybowski, made a comprehensive presentation that time and again returned to the CRMC staff report on the BIWF released last week that indicated they have no concerns about the project moving forward as long as Deepwater complies with a set of 16 additional stipulations to further safeguard the coastal resources of the State. Deepwater indicated that they would comply, and in many cases the CRMC’s demands are already part of the plan.
After Deepwater Wind’s presentation, the committee took the time to hear from the first 10 people on the speaker’s list. In a reversal from earlier meetings in the BIWF permitting process, there was a strong majority of support for the wind farm. Eight of the ten who spoke encouraged the committee to approve the project. Laurie White, President of the Providence Chamber of Commerce, said the “business community is eager to see the wind farm built,” adding “the country is watching.”
Bill McElroy, a lobsterman reported that “Deepwater had done a remarkably good job of reaching out to the fishing community. I think they’ve been very fair and honest with us.” The loudest support was from environmentalists. The Sierra Club, National Wildlife Foundation and Environment RI, as well as students all pointed to the development of New England’s offshore wind resources as imperative in the fight against climate change.
“For Block Island, it’s a public health concern” said Dr. Peter Baute, a resident and former town council member of New Shoreham, pointing out that the positive environmental impacts extend beyond the reduction of carbon emissions that heat the planet. The Block Island Wind Farm will make the Island’s current dirty and expensive diesel electrical generation obsolete.
The lone voice of dissent speculated that the project should be canceled due to economic concerns and the risk of the wind turbines catching fire and releasing toxic heavy metals into the ocean.
Chair Anne Maxwell Livingston and the other four members of the CRMC committee stopped the meeting there, agreeing that in addition to the next meeting already scheduled for February 24th on Block Island, another meeting would be scheduled on the mainland in order to hear from all those who still want to offer comment. Final approval by the Coastal Resources Management Council is the biggest hurdle left for the project to clear, and the Tuesday hearing could not have been drawn up more perfectly in the boardroom of Deepwater Wind.
If CRMC gives the wind farm the thumbs up as seems likely, federal permits should be granted in short order, and construction could begin by the end of the year. The installation of the underwater cable, wind platforms and turbines would begin in May of 2015 and be complete before the end of next summer, making Rhode Island the first state in the union with an offshore wind farm.