Screenshot URI renewable energy ask experts

NARRAGANSETT — Have a question about renewable energy? You can now ask it on a new, free website called Ask the Experts.

Created by the Coastal Resources Center of the University of Rhode Island, the site is a source for the latest information about offshore wind energy. Merry Ellen Hawkins, a 2020 Energy Fellow at URI’s Coastal Resources Center, has been working on the project since January.

The site went live two weeks ago.

“My job is to progress stakeholder engagement with the Block Island wind farm and offshore renewable energy especially in Rhode Island, but also nationally, and we thought the best way to do this would be online and then that was a great move, because COVID obviously moved a lot of stuff online.”

Located in state waters, the Block Island wind farm is the first offshore wind farm in the nation, but CRC’s director of coastal programs, Jennifer McCann said the modest five-turbine facility will soon be followed by a sweeping wind energy initiative in federally-owned waters off the East Coast from Maine to Virginia.

“There’s proposals for over 2,000 wind turbines off of the Atlantic coast in the next 10 years,” she said.

McCann explained that officials and interest groups in other states are now asking the same questions Rhode Islanders were asking during the Ocean Special Area Management Plan, or SAMP, consultative process that culminated in the completion of the wind farm. The existing research, she said, is either too technical for laypeople or inaccessible, so in addition to answering questions from the public, Ask The Experts includes interviews with scientists who explain the latest research findings.

“We’re taking these heavy, peer-reviewed documents and succinctly getting that information out to people that want to just watch a video or want to get that two-minute response to their question,” she said.

Hawkins said Ask the Experts is intended to serve four groups.

“Commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, practitioners — those are the people that are working in Sea Grant — and then the millennials, who are taking advantage of this new sector, whether they’re working in it or reaping the benefits of the energy themselves,” she said. “We’ve been holding focus groups now. We’ve done student focus groups and we’re sending out this source to all of our partner organizations. Right now we’re in the process of sending it out to all of the fishermen organizations and having those people really look at it and peruse the platform for functionality - how does it work for them and content - how does it work for them…We will take all of this back to the drawing table and implement those changes, because this is a source for the users.”

The content on the site will evolve as new research is published and new questions are received.

“The product that we developed, we always said that it would be constantly evolving because we’ll be adding new information to it and updating,” Hawkins said.

When someone asks a question on the site, Hawkins said it takes about two weeks to publish an answer.

“Right now, it’s about a couple of weeks of a turnaround, but we’re trying to make sure that all of the information is viable, unbiased and science-based.,” she said.

McCann said more questions will also be added to the list.

“We’re not just waiting for the questions, either,” she said. “We are proactively reaching out to resource users and other stakeholders and then respond to them succinctly,” she said.

Hawkins said she had found the process of developing the site to be personally, as well as academically, rewarding.

“It’s inspiring, and I get to educate all my peers who don’t have this opportunity about all the things I’ve learned,” she said.

Ask the Experts, which is free to use, can be found at https://web.uri.edu/offshore-renewable-energy/ask-the-experts/.

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