John Hazen White’s LOOKOUT: Rising Doubts on Deepwater Wind

Monday, October 14, 2013


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If you’ve followed the debates about the Deepwater Wind projects off Block Island and in RI Sound for the past several years with an open mind, you can’t help but to be confused at this point. And this state of confusion on the public’s part persists even as Deepwater Wind recently passed a big milestone: winning the rights from the federal government through an auction bid process to develop offshore wind power via a larger project in federal waters off the Ocean State.

As Deepwater inches along in its quest to deliver the first offshore wind project in U.S. waters, new concerns are being raised about the costs that Rhode Islanders will have to pay in electric rates for Deepwater, even as other supplies of onshore wind power energy – at much cheaper rates - are being secured by the state. Is Deepwater a good deal for Rhode Island or another well-meaning but expensive boondoggle from the Carcieri years that we can ill afford?

Deepwater at a Glance

To review, Deepwater wants to construct a smaller pilot project off Block Island to help lower the high electric rates that Islanders have had to pay for decades and supply extra power into the land-based grid that National Grid owns. The second and larger project would see wind turbines in RI Sound, farther off our coast.

Amidst all the controversies surrounding this project, and there are many, the latest is the question of whether the town of Narragansett will allow the cable line to be placed under the Scarborough beachfront or anywhere in town. Deepwater’s initial plan to locate the cable under the Narragansett Town Beach was voted down by the town. Town residents and officials probably have no more desire to host the cable under Scarborough Beach than they did under their town beach, but they don’t own the land under Scarborough, the state does.

With the inception of the project going back to Governor Carcieri’s first administration, the long and slow process has provided ample time for a cottage industry of sorts to develop, much like the one in the Bay State over its offshore wind project. This has allowed vocal camps of committed supporters and opponents to drag the project through – if not the water then certainly the mud – over the critical issue of whether it will ultimately be good or bad for Rhode Island.

Electricity, Environment, Expectations

Nearly every aspect of the project and what it entails is being argued by everyone from harbormasters and fishermen, to politicians, environmentalists, lawyers and climate change advocates, pro and con. Even the environmentalists in the Sierra Club are divided over it.

What will it do to electric rates – take them artificially higher for all of us ratepayers who will be subsidizing the Block island project, or produce lower rates over the long term once both projects are operational? Will an industry and jobs develop here in Rhode Island to support the projects?

Take your pick; it’s being argued both ways. What will it do to the environment? What impact will it have on the marine life and sea birds? How might it affect human health? Who knows.

Arguments fly back and forth, even on issues that should be settled by now based on considerable real world experience with wind farms elsewhere in the U.S., like in Texas and California, and in Europe. Look at the European countries that have developed their wind power industry, both offshore and land-based. They would appear to be accepted by the public and not still be a bone of contention. But not so fast here in New England: we’ve been treated to the prospect of toppling towers and disintegrating blades and dead birds and destroyed ocean bottoms. True or false?

One doesn’t know what to believe, except for the fact that the federal government under this administration is adamant about reducing our reliance on fossil fuel use and is encouraging the development of renewable forms of energy. This push is being second-guessed even more now that natural gas – a fossil fuel but cleaner and more efficient than coal – is coming online in abundance.

Plus, there is a realization that for some time to come we will have no choice but to continue to use fossil fuels along with renewable forms of energy, because renewables by themselves are insufficient in replacing the continuing need for carbon energy, supplies of which we don’t appear to be running out of anytime soon.

John Hazen White, Jr. is President and CEO of Taco, Inc. in Cranston and is the founder of Lookout RI.


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