September 23, 2008

R.I. Sets Course to Map Waters for Wind Farms


A team of experts will launch a $3.2-million effort to determine the best locations.

As coastal states race to build the country's first offshore wind farms, it is clear that Rhode Island is following a unique path.

The state has recruited a battery of oceanographers, engineers and other experts at the University of Rhode Island in an unprecedented $3.2-million effort to map and zone state and federal coastal waters to determine the best locations for turbines.

Nearly 50 people from URI's College of the Environment and Life Sciences, the Graduate School of Oceanography, Coastal Resources Center, Ocean Engineering Department and Department of Natural Resources Science have been drafted.

Also scheduled to take part is the 185-foot research vessel Endeavor. For the wind-power project, it is scheduled to take local researchers around Rhode Island's coastal waters for 10 days this fall.

Soon, the state is scheduled to select one of seven companies that have submitted proposals to build and operate wind turbines designed to meet Governor Carcieri's goal of providing enough power to supply 15 percent of the state's electricity. Cost estimates have run as high as $1.9 billion.

Rhode Island's plan is to have the state's Ocean Special Area Management Plan find the most suitable sites for wind turbines so Rhode Island can avoid the lengthy and costly controversy that has surrounded the Cape Wind project proposed for waters off Nantucket. Most other states have their energy offices or economic development personnel leading their wind-farm siting efforts. Massachusetts just enacted a law this year to plan uses of its coastal waters, but Rhode Island officials believe they are ahead because they have been doing such planning for decades.

"From our standpoint, this is a real innovation. It puts us out ahead in the race of achieving the governor's objective," said Saul Kaplan, executive director of the state's Economic Development Council, which is financing the studies.

Kaplan said he is excited that the process will provide a "fact base" for making good decisions and at the same time require a lot of public input.

"This is getting us national attention and it will continue to get national attention," Kaplan said of the zoning process. At the same time, he said he's encouraged by the quality of proposals from companies that generate electricity from wind. "I'm more and more convinced that this is a feasible project, and it makes us competitive nationally."

Laurie Jodziewicz, manager of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, confirmed that no other state is following Rhode Island's approach. But she also said she thinks wind companies are probably in the best position to identify the best sites for their turbines.

She said her chief concern about the Rhode Island process is: "We'd hate to see a planning process that only identifies those areas that are not feasible to develop."

Jodziewicz said she thinks Delaware is the furthest along in developing offshore wind power because it has signed a contract. Still, her industry is happy to see states vying to be out front, and there is no single model for what will work.

The new state planning project is being led by Grover Fugate, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council, the agency that regulates the state's coastline and state waters, which extend three miles offshore.

The federal Minerals Management Agency is drafting regulations that will allow it to open up federal waters off Rhode Island to wind farms.

But Fugate maintains that federal consistency doctrine outlined in the federal Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 requires that federal actions such as permitting of wind farms must be consistent with state coastal policies. That, he argues, means Rhode Island will have major input over permitting in nearby federal waters too. The Rhode Island plan will investigate coastal waters to about 20 miles offshore.

The EDC earlier this year approved $1.6 million for this year's work on the planning project and plans to set aside the same amount for next year.

Fugate said the decision to hire URI coastal experts was made fairly quickly.

"When we started to look, we said, "Who in the community is best?' Some of these folks at URI are world-class experts. We have the best and brightest right here. If we hired a consulting firm, they would probably come in from out of state and have to catch up. Many of these URI people have 30 years of experience, and this is their backyard."

By next July, the team plans to map some 1,547 square miles of coastal waters and all the uses that are important, such as transportation corridors and essential habitats. It plans to develop a strategy to communicate with Rhode Islanders and complete a draft zoning map.

By July 2010, the team plans to develop regulatory standards and complete its ocean plan.

One precedent for the project is the massive Army Corps of Engineer studies that helped the agency select a site off Block Island to dispose of clean dredge spoils from the Providence River. The original study by consultants took years. An updated study cost $5 million and took another five years.

Grover said his team will use the dredge studies and other URI studies, some unpublished, to speed its work.

A large part of this year's budget, nearly $700,000, is going to the Coastal Resources Center at URI's Bay Campus. This small think tank was created in 1971 as the state began a concerted effort to regulate its coastline. The director, Stephen Olsen, helped write the regulations that created the CRMC. Since then Olsen and his staff have been teaching coastal management skills to governments around the world.

The CRC staff has also done much of the research for CRMC as it has created policies and developed six other management plans for specific waters around Rhode Island. It is currently updating the management plan for the metropolitan area waters.

The CRC staff will study ocean zoning strategies used in other countries, Fugate said. It also will collect and manage the data gathered by other researchers and prepare reports and the final plan.

Fugate said he's been fielding inquiries from around the country about Rhode Island's planning process.

"We possess a very simple structure so it's easy for us to move quickly," he said. "And we've been doing zoning of coastal waters since 1983."

Also, he emphasized, he is keeping a wall between the scientists and all the other interests involved in the siting process. [email protected] / (401) 277-8036

Originally published by PETER B LORD, Journal Environment Writer.

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