Two Communities divided
NARRAGANSETT — The last two forums that addressed Deepwater Wind’s proposed Block Island Wind Farm showed two communities divided on the project’s merits. When the vetting of Deepwater Wind’s five-turbine wind farm transitioned from Narragansett Town Hall to state agencies, New Shoreham residents added a new perspective to the conversation that offered a counterpoint to the vocal opposition of Deepwater Resistance, a political action committee formed in Narragansett.
There were exceptions, but most New Shoreham residents spoke in favor of the project, while most Narragansett residents spoke against it.
Opponents point, in part, to the increased electric bills that will come to Rhode Island ratepayers, if the project is built. But New Shoreham residents counter that the transmission cable will connect its community to the mainland electric grid, lower their bills, and connect them to the internet.
In 2012, New Shoreham electricity users paid a high of 54.4 cents per kilowatt-hour, five times more than mainland ratepayers, according to New Shoreham resident Bill Penn at the state Department of Environmental Management hearing Dec. 11. Diesel fuel shipped to the island is used to meet Block Island’s energy needs.
“Our position is Block Island desperately needs a cable to the mainland to offset the high costs of electricity on Block Island. It’s crippling our local economy to the point of failure,” said New Shoreham Councilor Norris Pike at the same hearing.
Pike expressed frustration with the faction of Narragansett residents who oppose the project’s landing at Scarborough State Beach.
“If Block Island had a chance to say ‘no’ to Narragansett and they needed a cable, I hope we’d be friendlier than Narragansett has been to us. I don’t understand it, but it’s local politics at its worst,” he said.
Tina Jackson, president of the American Alliance of Fishermen, opposes the project, but warned residents against turning the argument over Deepwater Wind into a fight between two communities.
“This is becoming Block Island versus Narragansett, and it shouldn’t be about that. It should be what’s right for all of Rhode Island, including Block Island,” she said at the DEM hearing.
New Shoreham residents should have been connected to the mainland grid 20 years ago, but their elected officials continue to fail them, Jackson said.
“You keep electing the same people over and over again who do nothing for you,” she said.
In 2012, Jackson unsuccessfully ran against State Rep. Donna Walsh (D-Dist. 36), whose district includes New Shoreham, Charlestown, Westerly and a portion of coastal South Kingstown.
Opponents question if the cost of connecting Block Island to the grid is reasonable. The wind farm is projected to cost $205 million, with the installation of the transmission cable — proposed to run between the island and Scarborough State Beach in Narragansett — an additional $60 to $70 million. Those costs will be passed to National Grid’s customers in Rhode Island. Deepwater Wind officials have estimated the project will generate six permanent jobs.
The wind farm is expected to meet all of New Shoreham’s electric needs with 90 percent of the energy fed into the mainland grid via the transmission line. National Grid has agreed to purchase the excess energy at 24.4 cents per kilowatt-hour. Costs would increase by 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour each subsequent year of the wind farm’s 20 years of operation. It would be decommissioned after 20 years.
“When we put aside the platitudes about this project, we see this is a bad deal for Narragansett, for Rhode Island and for the environment. The increased energy costs associated with this project are at a conservative estimate [based on the Public Utilities Commission docket 4111] at $390 million. We’ve heard estimates much higher dwarfing that number,” said Narragansett Town Councilor Matthew Mannix at the DEM hearing.
In March 2010, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) initially and unanimously voted to reject the agreement between Deepwater Wind and National Grid, ruling it was not “commercially reasonable.” Following the denial, the General Assembly passed legislation that allowed the two companies to enter into a second agreement, and changed the definition of “commercially reasonable.”
In its second — favorable — ruling, the PUC said, “[T]he General Assembly has instructed this commission to accept the high cost of offshore wind technology for a project with limited economies of scale, so long as the slated costs, and [the power purchase agreement] pricing, terms and conditions, duly reflect those costs.”
As the project now proceeds through the permitting process, opponents have to decide how to address the state agencies.
The State Properties Committee and Department of Environmental Management (DEM) are only vetting minor aspects of the project. At a Dec. 4 meeting, the State Properties Committee granted Deepwater Wind two easements: one to land the transmission cable at Scarborough State Beach and the other to build a switchyard in a state utility lot in the vicinity of the Dillon Rotary in Narragansett. DEM is considering the company’s dredging permit and water quality certificate for work in the waters off Scarborough. Some speakers addressed the limited lens through which these state agencies are viewing the project, while others have asked state agencies to study the project’s merits as a whole.
“So what I urge you, as a board, is to not look at it narrowly because if we had done that in Narragansett, we would have [accepted it],” Mannix told the State Properties Committee at its meeting before it voted 2-0 to grant Deepwater two easements.
Sen. Dawson Hodgson (R-Dist. 35) of Narragansett, South Kingstown, East Greenwich and North Kingstown, opposes the project and recommended DEM stop the project on a procedural basis so it can be reviewed holistically. DEM is still vetting the permit and certificate and a date for a vote has not been scheduled.
“As we are coerced by the DEM to look myopically at this project by concentrating on water quality rather than the broad issue of economic viability, our state government careens toward another 38 Studios,” Deepwater Resistance Vice Chairman Gerald McCarthy read from a prepared statement at the hearing.
Members of environmental organizations, including the National Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club, have spoken in support of the project. Commercial fishermen from the Port of Galilee expressed mixed opinions at the DEM hearing.
Before construction of the five-turbine wind farm can begin, Deepwater Wind must receive federal and state permits from agencies such as DEM, the Coastal Resources Management Council and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Utility permits to run the cable from Scarborough State Beach beneath Burnside Avenue and Route 108 in Narragansett to the switchyard also will be vetted.
Derek Gomes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.