URI Helps Set Standards for Off-Shore Wind Farms

For more on the Ocean SAMP, go to: http://seagrant.gso.uri.edu/oceansamp/

Before a handful of people one rainy night at the state Administration Building in Providence, Tiffany Smythe told the story of the thousands of freighters, tankers, barges, and tugs that ply the waters of Narragansett Bay and Block Island Sound every year.

Smythe, a marine research associate at URI’s Coastal Resources Center, illustrated her talk with slides of big ships and maps depicting complicated navigation routes, undersea cable pathways, and locations of unexploded depth charges and bombs.

When she was done, there were no questions, just comments of approval and support from members of the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council, the body that regulates all coastal activities. “Another job well done,” said CRMC chairman Michael M. Tikoian. And that’s just the way all involved wanted things to go.

Casting a leery eye on the emotional, nine-year, multi-million dollar battle over the proposed Cape Wind energy complex in Nantucket Sound, officials in Rhode Island decided two years ago to follow a far less contentious route in planning a similar wind farm for waters off Rhode Island.

Instead of picking a site and hiring consultants to draft an environmental impact statement to defend that choice, Rhode Island officials decided to make use of homegrown talent, some 60 scientists, engineers, and graduate students at the University of Rhode Island, to study the state’s offshore waters and call on the collective wisdom to pick the best sites. The idea was to invest the time now to study all the relevant issues and potential problems so that when a site is finally picked, the choice can be justified with research and data as one that won’t create harm to other users, be they people, marine life, or birds.

The state’s Coastal Resources Management Council used a similar strategy to study and “zone” various parts of Narragansett Bay and other coastal waters over the previous decades. It is analogous to the zoning communities use to plan their development. The Ocean Special Area Management Plan would be a similar zoning effort on a much grander scale. Its price tag is approaching $10 million for studies that account for 1,467 square miles of Rhode Island’s coastal waters.

CRMC executive director Grover Fugate recalls his first meeting about the plan with Malcolm L. Spaulding ’69, Ph.D. ’73, a professor of ocean engineering at the Bay Campus, and former state energy commissioner Andrew Dzykewicz. Fugate recalls that Spaulding and Dzykewicz wanted to use experts at URI to do an environmental impact statement while he proposed the broader planning study of a vast area of state and federal offshore waters. The idea was to involve stakeholders such as fishermen, shipping companies, and birdwatchers to gain their input from the beginning.

Spaulding recalls that Daniel L. Mendelsohn, author of an early wind power survey for Rhode Island with his company, Applied Technology Management, was at the meeting. Spaulding says Mendelsohn also favored utilizing the “enormous capabilities” at the University rather than hiring a consulting company. “It’s one stop shopping here at URI,” Spaulding said. “We’re collecting an enormous amount of information useful to the project.”

Once approved by CRMC and Governor Donald Carcieri, a structure was quickly put into place for the project, now called Ocean SAMP.

Fugate is project manager. Senior advisors are Spaulding and Dennis Nixon, associate dean for research and administration at The Graduate School of Oceanography. Principal investigators are Jennifer McCann, leader of the Sustainable Coastal Communities Program for Rhode Island Sea Grant and URI’s Coastal Resources Center, and Sam De Bow, manager of research operations and special projects at GSO. Kate Moran, an ocean engineering professor and associate dean at GSO, also played a key role before leaving to join President Barack Obama’s Council on Environmental Quality.

The team invited former state Senate policy advisor Kenneth Payne to host informational meetings with such stakeholders as fishermen, community officials, environmental advocacy groups, Native Americans, and business leaders.

CRMC legal counsel Brian Goldman took charge of a legal advisory task force while two veteran scientists, URI’s Scott Nixon and Carlton Hunt of Battelle, chair a science advisory task force. Teams are also assigned to do outreach and to collaborate with other federal and state agencies.

The planning process was broken down into 11 chapters. Each one proceeds on its own timeline so delays in one area will not affect others. Chapters on recreation and tourism as well as marine transportation, navigation and infrastructure have already proceeded through eight steps of public review and adoption by CRMC. Other chapters still being completed include ecology, global climate change, cultural and historic resources, fisheries resources and uses, renewable energy, other future uses, and new and existing policies.

Spaulding said the study is making use of experts from URI’s College of Engineering, Graduate School of Oceanography, and College of the Environment and Life Sciences.

Working on a separate track, the Carcieri administration selected a company called Deepwater Wind to develop a small wind farm just off Block Island and later a $1.5 billion wind farm further offshore, probably someplace south of Block Island. Deepwater is committed to paying some of SAMP’s costs, but state officials insist there is a firewall between Deepwater and the state’s planning efforts. After the planning is done, Deepwater still has to get the necessary state and federal permits.

There was a significant setback at the end of March, when the state Public Utilities Commission voted against a purchase agreement for Deepwater’s eight-unit project near Block Island. With a proposed price for its electricity of about three times the going rate, the PUC said the project was not commercially feasible. Gov. Carcieri and a Deepwater spokesman have both vowed to pursue other options to move the project forward.

Because the researchers have no interest in priorities set by Deepwater Wind, Spaulding says they are free to create useful data that can be beneficial for science. “I tell Deepwater my agenda is to make sure offshore wind development is being done in a responsible fashion,” Spaulding said. “If that means we disagree on some things they want to do, so be it. We have no skin in the game. URI ends up being the repository of all this information that advances the science and engineering agenda of the University.”

The project has allowed URI to set up two offshore buoys to collect surface data, take measurements of waves, and collect data from the seafloor.

“I think more research has been done in Rhode Island Sound in the last 24 months than over the last 25 years,” Spaulding said. Some of the newly collected data has already been fed into a regional ocean observing system called the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems. Spaulding is president of the non-profit, which provides ocean observation information to fishermen and shippers.

Despite the nearly $10 million price tag for the project, Spaulding said it’s cheaper to pay professors and graduate students than to hire consultants. By comparison, he said, Massachusetts is looking for more coastal wind farm sites, but most of its efforts are focused on coastal state waters, and there is little data collection: “There is no other state that has done the kind of work we have done in moving forward on this comprehensive plan. For me it’s been very exciting—a wonderful marriage.”

Fugate, who says Rhode Island is getting a lot of attention for using such an innovative approach to planning offshore wind farms, has received invitations from groups all over the country to describe the ocean-mapping project.

Last February Rhode Island’s efforts were recognized by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar when he gathered coastal state leaders in Washington, D.C., to talk about how his agency can do more to speed development of offshore wind energy: “None of that has been going on at the federal level,” Salazar said in a press conference with Gov. Carcieri and other coastal state leaders. “Now we hope to work together and learn from each other.”

Since then, Fugate and McCann have returned to Washington for more meetings to help federal officials set national standards for offshore wind farms. A good part of what the two had to offer, were lessons learned in Rhode Island.

By Peter B. Lord ’92