By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Cape Wind may be gone, but it’s still fresh on the minds of attendees and speakers at a two-day southern New England wind energy conference hosted by the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography.
Bill White, senior director of wind development for the Massachusetts state agency that advances renewable energy, said the demise of Cape Wind was a personal disappointment, but the 16-year saga offered several teachable moments for the offshore wind industry.
Those lessons, White said, include building further offshore, presumably away from popular recreation and fishing areas such as Nantucket Sound. To speed up permitting, environmental studies should be completed and regulations addressed earlier in the application process, he added.
Cape Wind also established offshore infrastructure that will benefit future projects. It led to construction hubs such as the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, and laid the groundwork for planning, staging, and construction of turbines and their transmission lines.
“Cape Wind in a way served as a catalyst not just for Massachusetts but in a way for the entire East Coast in educating us to the possibility of offshore wind,” White said.
Smaller is better, Deepwater Wind CEO Jeffrey Grybowski said. He noted that the 130-turbine Cape Wind project and other failed offshore wind farms suffered from a process that was pushed by developers rather than by a state-driven model, such as the one Rhode Island embraced for the five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm.
Developers, inspired by large European wind projects, relied on analysis from engineers showing the maximum number of turbines that could be built in an offshore zone, Grybowski said. Large projects like Cape Wind and others off the coasts of Delaware, New Jersey, and Long Island “were in essence drawn up on a white board in a developer’s office."
"They were engineered," Grybowski said. "An engineer said, ‘I can build this much in this area.’ They were mechanically engineered and financially engineered to those particular project sizes. And those projects failed.”
Grybowski praised Rhode Island’s ocean mapping plan for providing the locations and process for approving offshore wind projects. Through community and stakeholder involvement, the project was reduced from 100 turbines to eight and then five.
“When you are doing something for the first time going for the large size is not necessarily the right way to go, even though it may make financial sense,” Grybowski said.
Building 400 turbines is feasible and already happening in Europe, he said, “but starting small makes a lot of sense when you look at the long term.”
Starting small and moving slowly makes it easier to recover from mistakes that might derail a larger project. Grybowski didn’t mention specific errors, but the Block Island project encountered some safety and construction problems, along with minor public resistance, all of which were fixed or addressed with alternative plans.
Grybowski described the give-and-take as “enlightened self-interest.” He explained that the turbines benefited Block Island by fulfilling its dual goals of ending its reliance on diesel-fuel power, while connecting the island to the mainland power grid. As an inducement, the transmission line included a fiber-optic Internet connection.
“It means ... making the right concessions for the community and the project that maximizes everyone's goals at the end of the day,” Grybowski said.
The experience of building the Block Island Wind Farm set the course for new and much larger offshore wind projects that will be needed as the country transitions away from fossil fuels. Electrification of the transportation sector and advances in battery storage are escalating the demand for renewable energy and offshore wind is the most practical source of utility-scale power to meet that energy need, according to Grybowski.
Science was the focus of the two-day conference (Dec. 11 and 12), with sessions on marine mammals, fish and fisheries, birds, and bats. Grybowski urged scientists to do more to promote their research. Climate-change deniers, Grybowski said, were given legitimacy because scientists didn't adequately “engage in that public conversation.”
“When there was pushback, fake news on the other side, the science community, they were comfortable with kind of putting their studies together," he said. “They weren’t really comfortable engaging in a real way out with people on the other side in the community. So I ask you to do that."
Grybowski pointed to news stories that circulated a dubious claim that noise from the Block Island Wind Farm killed a humpback whale that washed ashore on Jamestown earlier this year.
“When that sort of thing happens, it would be really great to have some researchers who were willing to step up and actually get engaged in that conversation and provide facts and help people make clear judgements about what is and what isn’t happening,” Grybowski said.
Deepwater Wind responded with “no comment” to a recent request for comment about changes to key wind-energy tax breaks being considered by Congress.
The U.S. House bill waters down a tax credit for utility-scale wind projects, while the Senate version doesn't cut the subsidy.
“I’m quite hopeful (the Senate) is the version that will pass," Grybowski said. "In which case it’s no real change to our industry."