Wind Farm Proposed off Rhode Island Coast

By Sean Corcoran

RADIO REPORT

A government-led initiative to build a large-scale shallow-water wind farm is underway in neighboring Rhode Island, where Gov. Don Carcieri has committed to generating FIFTEEN PERCENT of the state's energy needs from wind. Here's reporter Sean Corcoran.

The bids are in, potential sites have been selected and the emerging opposition group's lawn signs will soon be printed.

With the governor's backing, the push to install up to 110 wind turbines off the Rhode Island coast is moving ahead. The project would be privately financed and located in state waters, which should make permitting easier -- easier than what the Cape Wind project here still faces -- and a total of seven firms from around the country have filed bids with the state to build it.

Lefteris Pavlides is a professor of architecture at Roger Williams University and an outspoken advocate for the governor's wind plan. HE ARGUES THAT THE OFFSHORE PLAN WILL BEST FIT THE STATE'S NEEDS.

PAVLIDES: "The governor is looking to install a significant amount of electricity from wind, and to do it in the most economic but also effective way, installing where most of the wind is available in Rhode Island, which happens to be offshore."

Rhode Island Wind would be the largest private investment project in state history. And the state's lawmakers are helping the potential developer along by creating legislation that would require Rhode Island's major power distributor -- National Grid -- to buy the renewable energy for at least a decade, thereby guaranteeing that the Wind Farm's electricity would find its way to the market.

The project is expected to cost between 900 million and 2 billion dollars, depending upon the final size and location. Two of the potential sites identified are off the coast of Block Island. Pavlides says that's where the fastest winds are, and by locating a substation on the report island the project also will help residents there.

PAVLIDES: "Right now Block Island electricity costs 42 cents a kilowatt hour, which is the most expensive anywhere the United States. So there are various advantages to getting the most economical wind electricity and at the same time impacting the local community in terms of improving the electricity cost over there."

Pavlides says the wind farm could be constructed within two years -- that's if opponents of the project do not employ obstruct and delay tactics. And an opposition group already has emerged. It's called the Rhode Island Alliance for Clean Energy, and the group's president, Anthony Spiratos, says the group is fund raising and garnering supporters to fight the project, driven largely by concerns about location.

SPIRATOS: "Make no mistake about it, though, we are not against alternative sources of energy that are situated in the right location. For instance, the fundamental questions that one must ask themselves is would you put solar panels on top of Mount Rushmore? Would you put a geothermal plant on top of Old Faithful? Or would you put a nuclear power plant in downtown Providence? The answer is no, of course not."

Spiratos also says the project would have adverse ecological effects -- particularly on migratory birds. Professor Pavlides disputes this. There also are contentious disagreements regarding cost, effects on human health and even photo simulations of the proposed project.

If these issues sound familiar, it's not surprising. Those same back-and-forth arguments have been ongoing regarding Cape Wind for nearly seven year. One significant difference between the two projects, however, is that Cape Wind would be located in federal waters, making it mostly out of the reach of local regulators -- and that's a bone of contention for opponents here. Rhode Island Wind would be located in state waters. But this time the opposition is arguing that that's a bad idea.

SPIRATOS: "They are trying to keep them in state waters, because to go into federal waters it is much more of a bureaucracy that they have to deal with. And it is a much longer process. And the scary thing is that these wind turbines, and there would be hundreds of them, they are 400 feet tall, which is equivalent to the same size as the Newport Bridge. And these things would be situated a quarter mile to a half-mile of the coast."

The debate sounds a lot like the one Cape Codders have been hearing regarding the Cape Wind project, with talk about the affect on fishing families, the tourism industry, and debates about how much the electricity would cost.

Audra Parker of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound -- Cape Wind's primary opposition group -- says the Rhode Island opposition group is correct in raising the potential impacts of the project, such as the affect on fishing, tourism and energy rates. While the Alliance takes no formal stance on the Rhode Island wind farm, Parker warned against moving quickly to install turbines close to shore because technology is emerging to do such projects in deeper water, where there would be fewer impacts.

PARKER: "When we have opportunities to go into deeper water, I think it is a little short sighted. . . I think we really need to look ahead, not necessarily even form a time frame, and say we can do these deeper water projects and can generate more power so why do these shallow projects at all. And I think that is an overall question to ask when we are looking at any project."

The Rhode Island government is expected to select a company to build and operate the wind farm by the end of the summer. A spokesperson for Cape Wind Affiliates, Mark Rogers, said Cape Wind considered bidding on the project, but ultimately determined it did not have the staffing to prepare a proposal.

For WCAI, I'm Sean Corcoran.

listenListen to report