Ocean Landscapes Offer Energy Alternatives

By MEREDITH HAAS/ecoRI News contributor

Wind is free and there is lots of it offshore. Coastal states are looking to develop this untapped resource as a means to meet increasing energy demands. New England has some of the highest electricity rates in the nation, with Rhode Island placing seventh, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The rate of energy consumption and the need for new, clean energy sources prompted former Gov. Donald Carcieri’s pledge nearly five years ago to provide 15 percent of Rhode Island’s electrical power from renewable resources, primarily wind, by 2020.

“Of the many forms of renewable energy alternatives available, wind is the proven leader. Wind power is clean, green power that is not subject to variations and increases in fuel price. Rhode Island is uniquely positioned to lead the nation with the development of this country’s first offshore wind farm,” Carcieri said in his 2008 announcement concerning development plans in Rhode Island.

As states rushed to be the first in the nation with an offshore wind farm, development plans such as the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, where initial plans were developed in 2005, have been stalled because of regulatory complications on the state and federal levels, opposition from fishermen and other interested parties, and a lack of knowledge about ocean ecosystems. All of these factors made siting and developing offshore wind farms much more cumbersome than anticipated.

“Shadowing this backdrop was the fact that this country had little to no experience in permitting major renewable energy projects in the marine environment,” wrote Grover Fugate, executive director of the state Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) in the Roger Williams University Law Review.

Gathering as much cultural, economic and ecological information as possible on the offshore environment became the priority of CRMC, the state agency charged with managing Rhode Island’s coastal resources and public trust waters, in order to propel potential development of offshore wind farms in state waters while also maintaining environmental health and honoring existing uses.

“It’s like looking at a piece of blank paper, without any information, and picking a spot to build without knowing where anything is. It’s the same with the ocean,” Fugate said. “We didn’t even know where the shipping lanes were or how often they were being used. We knew virtually nothing about the area.”

What’s the cost?
With offshore energy projects estimated to bring in $60 million annually and generate nearly 800 new jobs in Rhode Island, based on current proposals from Deepwater Wind, a Rhode Island-based wind energy development company, many were concerned about environmental risks of development and disruption to existing uses, especially fishing. It was a priority, Fugate said, to provide appropriate guidelines that ease concerns regarding environmental impacts and conflicts with existing uses, such as fishing, in relation to offshore wind development.

To create these guidelines, Rhode Island embarked on a three-year, $8 million scientific study beginning in 2009 of its offshore region, in what is referred to as the Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP) study area.

This area extends 30 miles off the coast and includes portions of Block Island Sound and Rhode Island Sound, as well as the Atlantic Ocean. The goal of this undertaking was to identify existing uses, critical habitat and potential areas for development in order to develop the Ocean SAMP as a tool that would allow managers to respond to various existing and future uses of coastal and marine resources.

“The point of the (Ocean SAMP) is to figure out if there is a place to put a turbine, and if so, how do we manage that?” said Jennifer McCann, a researcher on the project and extension leader for Rhode Island Sea Grant and the Coastal Resources Center at the University of Rhode Island. “It’s about honoring existing uses and using the best science to base decisions.”

With a long history of marine spatial planning in coastal waters, Rhode Island extended the same principles used to manage its near-shore waters to its offshore region.

“We knew that the information we were going to have to gather for a siting effort would be the same information we would need for a marine spatial planning effort for Rhode Island’s portion of the sounds,” said Fugate, who led a team of experts in partnership with URI, the Coastal Resources Center, Rhode Island Sea Grant and Roger Williams University School of Law to collect the necessary data.

This effort involved having scientists review existing findings and conduct new research to fill in knowledge gaps, and putting together a stakeholder group that included fishermen and recreational boaters to tribal leaders and municipal officials. The process helped uncover many ecological, cultural and economical elements not previously understood about Rhode Island’s offshore region. As a result, numerous maps were created that show a checkered landscape of varying uses, from fishing and transportation to wildlife migrations and submerged feeding grounds.

“It transformed our understanding,” said Fugate, explaining the importance of both scientific and local knowledge in deciding on appropriate siting locations of wind turbines.

Voices carry
Doug Harris of the Narragansett Tribe spoke at the 11th Ronald C. Baird Sea Grant Science Symposium held in May 2012. Harris discussed the importance of stakeholder engagement not only for the Narragansett Tribe but also for other interested parties.

“Tribes in the U.S. most often don’t get a front seat in the process,” he said. “Fishermen are from the same community. They may come from different sectors, but we’re all going to sink or swim in this. What will the future be for my grandchildren and theirs?”

Rhode Island is the first state to incorporate a comprehensive ocean special area management plan in its coastal management program. The Ocean SAMP is comprised of multiple chapters addressing healthy habitats, commercial and recreational fishing, cultural heritage, recreation and tourism, climate change and future uses, such as the development of offshore renewable energy.

“Marine spatial planning is both a process and a product,” said Jake Rice from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans in May at the Baird Symposium. “It engages people at all levels and is a guide on how uses can coexist with a healthy environment. It allows prosperity we all want to see.”

While research is wrapping up to complete the three-year database, the Ocean SAMP has already been employed with beneficial results. One of the first actions under the Ocean SAMP was the establishment of a wind energy area that designates wind energy projects to locations of minimal impacts to existing uses and the environment. In this process, a portion of Cox’s Ledge, an important fishing ground in Rhode Island, was removed from being considered as an area for development.

“Hot spots were identified as areas of critical habitat for various sectors, which takes out certain locations for leasing consideration,” Fugate said.

Protocols established by the Ocean SAMP for siting and development will be utilized by the Block Island pilot project — a demonstration project about 3 miles southeast of Block Island to test the scale of offshore infrastructure. Deepwater Wind is planning to place five wind turbines that generate 6 megawatts each, supplying most of Block Island’s electricity needs.

Wind farms are just one example of potential future offshore uses. The demand for development in Rhode Island’s offshore waters may include the placement of many structures and activities, including liquefied natural gas infrastructure, aquaculture and artificial reefs.

These demands will likely increase as coastal populations grow and advances in technology make new offshore development possible.