Options Weighed on Offshore Wind in Shared Waters

By SARAH SCHUMANN/ecoRI News contributor

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — In two recent meetings, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) outlined a process for permitting development of offshore wind farms in the area between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard, known as the "area of mutual interest" (AMI).

The AMI is a slice of prime wind-energy real estate lying in federal waters equidistant from Rhode Island and Massachusetts. A June 26, 2010 memorandum of understanding binds the two states to seek mutually beneficial development opportunities there.

BOEMRE, the federal permitting agency for offshore wind, created a joint Massachusetts/Rhode Island Offshore Renewable Energy Task Force late last year to facilitate the process. The task force met for the second time May 2. The next day, BOEMRE held a public information session here.

“This is the start of the process,” said Grover Fugate at the May 3 public meeting. Fugate is the director of the state's Coastal Resource Management Council, the agency that paved the way for ocean wind development in Rhode Island through its two-year Ocean Special Area Management Plan process. “The point is to open the dialogue so people can have input into the process.”

“We haven’t had any offshore leasing on the Atlantic seaboard since the early eighties,” said Maureen Bornholdt of BOEMRE. “It’s basically frontier.”

BOEMRE has received two unsolicited proposals to develop offshore wind farms in the AMI. One was submitted by Deepwater Wind, the Providence-based company slated to erect eight turbines south of Block Island. The other was submitted by Neptune Wind, a Massachusetts-based company. The area sought by Deepwater Wind is slightly larger, and there is some overlap between the two proposed sites.

Because two companies are vying for the same area, BOEMRE will employ a competitive lease process to determine the most appropriate way to enable development of the area. The next step is a call for information, which will provide data on archaeological sites, fishing patterns, and meteorological and environmental data to help BOEMRE determine the most suitable sites and wind farm configurations for the area. 

Fishermen and boaters have expressed anxiety about whether areas surrounding turbines will be off-limits to navigation. The Coast Guard, which has the authority to impose additional safety restrictions around turbines, says it requires further study of the effects of turbines on radar and lighting before making a decision.

In addition, the R.I./Mass. task force is considering a 1-mile buffer along the edges of the vessel traffic lanes that criss-cross the area.

Stakeholders have expressed dismay that potential restrictions on navigation will not be known until later. But Bornholdt explained that, “This is a frontier world using new technology, so we have to do this in stages and increments.”

Though few details are firm at this stage of the process, Bornholdt reassured attendees at the May 3 meeting that her agency is flexible and responsive to stakeholder concerns.

“This can be morphed and changed a thousand ways to Sunday before we actually go out there with our area,” she said.