PETER B. LORD & NATALIE GARCIA, The Providence Journal, March 5, 2008
The agency that regulates Rhode Island’s coastline has proposed a one-year moratorium on wind farms and wave generators in the state’s coastal waters so it can develop a special management plan that will determine where such projects will be allowed.
Governor Carcieri and two environmental groups are opposing the moratorium.
Yesterday, Jeff Neal, Carcieri’s spokesman, said he’s concerned the decision will slow the state’s progress toward developing renewable energy sources. A moratorium, he said, would also send the wrong signal and might scare off potential proposals.
“Governor Carcieri wants to remain out front developing wind and wave energy sources,” Neal said. “He doesn’t believe a moratorium will be helpful.”
The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, the agency proposing the temporary ban, disagrees. Even without a moratorium, it would take about two years to conduct research and collect wind-energy data needed to create an ocean zoning plan, according to the agency. No projects could go forward before that work is complete.
A spokesman for Allco Renewable Energy Group, which last September proposed erecting hundreds of wind turbines off Rhode Island’s coast, said his company does not oppose the moratorium as long as the CRMC develops a plan that will streamline the approval process.
“We believe a properly executed special-area management plan is a better road to go through than a full-blown environmental-impact statement process with the Army Corps of Engineers,” said Bill Fischer, Allco’s spokesman in Rhode Island.
The first major wind project in the region, Cape Wind’s proposal for Nantucket Sound, has been bogged down for years while work proceeded on a multi-million-dollar environmental-impact statement.
The moratorium was announced by the CRMC last month in a legal advertisement. The agency did not issue any press releases on the subject. Public comments could be submitted only until March 2, and only one was submitted, signed jointly by two environmental groups.The agency will have a public hearing at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Narragansett Bay Commission offices in Providence.
Spokeswoman Laura Ricketson said the agency doesn’t routinely issue press releases when it proposes changes in its regulations. “This is how we do things,” she said. “It is advertised.”
The Conservation Law Foundation and Environment Rhode Island support CRMC’s goal of developing a special management plan for the coastal waters, but they are concerned about the proposed moratorium. In a letter sent Monday to CRMC director Grover Fugate, they outlined three concerns:
•The agency has not given enough details about the proposed management plan.
•It is not clear how Fugate plans to spend $6 million he reportedly said is needed to install a data gathering tower and to develop the management plan.
•The agency has not specified exactly what tower, experimental projects or other data collection will be needed.
“A well-crafted approach to ocean planning might justify a one-year moratorium,” wrote CLF’s director, Cynthia Giles, and Environment Rhode Island’s advocate, Matt Auten. “However, no information has yet been provided that would yet support that conclusion.”
Ricketson said CRMC plans to develop the management plan with experts at the University of Rhode Island. She said it will be a long, complicated process. The goal, she said, is to develop “permit-ready” sites with state and federal partners.
“To develop an ocean special-area management plan in a year would be putting it on the fast track,” Ricketson said. “That would be a huge success.”
Should URI create the state’s zoning plan, the total cost is estimated at $6.5 million, said URI ocean engineering Prof. Malcolm Spaulding, who heads the project.
Spaulding supports developing an ocean zoning map that will determine which areas should be reserved for shipping and boating navigation routes, aquaculture, wildlife habitat and unobstructed ocean views. That would simplify the process and eliminate sites where alternative energy projects, such as wind farms, would not be appropriate, he said.
“It will regularize the system and give strong incentives for developers,” Spaulding said. “It takes some of the risk out.”
Spaulding said more information should be collected before Carcieri promotes these projects. No measurements of offshore wind potential, for example, have been systematically collected in Rhode Island, he said. Optimistic accounts of wind resources have been based on model predictions.
The lack of data, Spaulding said, should not discourage investors and wind energy proponents. But it means that banks will want about two years of observable data before backing any offshore wind projects.
Who will pay for developing the CRMC management plan is still not clear.
The governor wants private businesses to pick up some of the costs, and CRMC and URI are talking about handling the project alone, relying on public money.
So far, at least one company has offered to help pay. Allco has said he will fund the tower that would be set up to gather meteorological data.
“I think the state should let the private sector bear the costs, especially with the state budget problems that exist now,” Fischer said.
Spaulding cautioned against allowing private companies to gather the data, warning that they might not be willing to disclose the information to the state and competing investors or guarantee the validity of the findings.
Spaulding said having the state generate the plan is worth the cost because it will offer clear guidelines for all offshore energy projects, so environmental impact work would not have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The alternative, he said, would force companies to repeat the same research, increasing the cost of the projects and slowing them considerably.
The Office of Energy Resources Commissioner, Andrew Dzykewicz, Carcieri’s energy advisor, did not return calls for comment yesterday.
“What happens with these things, they can easily get bogged down in controversy,” Spaulding said. “This approach will avoid the cost and long delays experienced by Cape Wind. This would revolutionize the way these things are done in coastal waters.”