NARRAGANSETT — A year after the Block Island wind farm’s five turbines began producing power, 170 scientists, federal and state officials, fishermen and others from Maine to Virginia gathered on Monday to talk about the project.
Sponsored by project developer Deep Water Wind and Rhode Island Sea Grant, the two-day conference at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography provided an opportunity for participants to share current research findings and discuss future wind energy projects.
The idea of having a conference originated with Grover Fugate, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. The CRMC has been involved with the wind farm since 2007, when the Ocean Special Area Management Plan, or SAMP, was created. Fugate and others have attributed the successful completion of the wind farm to the SAMP collaborative process.
“Trying to spend the time up front and meet with the prospective users that are out there that have concerns, look at the resources and the rest of it, to the extent that you can incorporate that up front in the process saves you a tremendous amount of time on the back side,” he said.
The federal government is now considering proposals for wind energy projects along the entire East Coast. James Bennet of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management provided an overview of wind power’s key role in the federal government’s renewable energy strategy for the coming years.
“We believe that the outer continental shelf can provide a very significant contribution to the administration’s energy strategy,” he said. “That includes revenue, that includes jobs, that includes energy diversity. We know that in the Northeast, we have the trifecta for wind energy projects. We have a great wind energy source, we have a buildable environment of a shallow, sloping shelf that fits with the currently available technology and we have world class markets for energy consumption.”
Rhode Island Energy Resources Commissioner Carol Grant said when it became apparent that the Block Island wind farm was going to be built, the project began to attract global attention.
“People from all over the globe started descending on Rhode Island,” she said. “It’s great to have them here in our hotels, talking to each other, but also asking the question that has been asked here: what advice do we have?”
Jeffrey Grybowski, Deep Water Wind’s Chief Executive Officer, said it was important for the country’s first offshore wind farm to remain small.
“When you’re doing something for the first time, going for the large size isn’t necessarily the right way to go,” he said. “Even though it may make financial sense, and from an engineering perspective, building 400 megawatts of offshore wind is very achievable, something that’s done, literally, every day now, but starting small makes a lot of sense when you step back and you look at the long term, because offshore wind does have impacts and it’s important to proceed in a way that allows you to measure those impacts and understand them before you get to the point where your impact is so large that you’ve done lasting damage to your cause.”
Save the Bay South County Coastkeeper David Prescott moderated a panel discussion by stakeholders, which included The Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation and Chris Brown, President of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen’s Association. Brown said fishermen were threatened at first by the idea of a wind farm, but over time, came to trust the SAMP process.
“We realized that our greatest defense was to become willing to participate in the process and have our opinions valued and respected,” he said. “...If there are any other developers in the room, I would like you to note how really important it is for you to take the threat to commercial fishing off the table at the very onset of the conversation.”
Brown also warned scientists not to discount fishermen’s anecdotal observations.
“I have been fishing for 40 years, have 8,000 days at sea and could tell you things about the ocean that would curl your hair and have you sitting on the edge of your seat, but yet I have no value scientifically because everything I say is anecdotal,” he said. “I need to find a way to translate what I see, what I know, what I feel, what I believe, into data that is usable by the system. We wish desperately to be a fishery that is guided by science and preserved by the concept of conservation.”
Despite the extensive research and monitoring that has been a key component of the siting and building of the wind farm, scientists still lack data in many areas such as the effects of loud construction processes like pile-driving on marine mammals and fish.
Monitors were on hand at all times to check for the presence of whales near the construction area, a protection required by federal law, but little is known about how whales, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale, are affected by the noise.
Two URI professors who study fish said they believe that fish are also affected by construction noise as well as the electromagnetic field generated by the transmission cable, but there is no data to say what those effects might be.
Scott Kraus, the Chief Scientist at the New England Aquarium who performed aerial whale population surveys over proposed Massachusetts and Rhode Island wind energy areas, said it would be important to determine how whales are affected before wind farms proliferate along the coast.
“There is no controlled understanding of what happens to marine mammal distribution and abundance and how they interact with wind farms, other than harbor porpoise and harbor seals,” he said. “That’s what the Europeans had to deal with. We have to deal with large whales, a lot of endangered species, sea turtles — the Europeans didn’t have any of that.”