Public Will Have Plenty of Chances to Comment on Sakonnet River Wind Project
February 13, 2023
PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — A half-dozen state and town officials, along with people from groups concerned with the health of Rhode Island waters, recently met with the public to discuss the proposed offshore wind project formerly called Mayflower Wind, recently renamed SouthCoast Wind Energy LLC.
Officials at the Feb. 2 meeting, held at the Common Fence Point Community Center, wanted to explain the upcoming permitting-and-comment process for SouthCoast Wind. Audience members wanted to state their opposition, or at least strong skepticism.
The 30 or so in-person and 50 live-stream listeners were told they may express their views on the wind facility through the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), the state’s Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB), and the town of Portsmouth, each with a representative at the evening’s hearing. Other presenters came from Save The Bay and a state fishermen’s organization.
SouthCoast Wind proposes to build up to 149 wind turbines and offshore substation platforms in federal waters off the southern coast of Massachusetts. Rhode Island has no legal purview in federal waters. But the developers also plan to install two underwater cable corridors, one making landfall in Falmouth, Mass.
The second corridor, which Rhode Island regulators would need to evaluate and permit, would run up the Sakonnet River, make landfall on Aquidneck Island in Portsmouth and cross the island underground, enter Mount Hope Bay, and make landfall at Brayton Point in Somerset, Mass.
This is the part of the project that riled a cluster of speakers. Some worried about the effect on marine life of electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) from undersea cables, which, in other offshore wind projects, are generally required to be buried 4-6 feet below ground.
One audience member said, “This project sets a precedent for the Sakonnet River. Once approved, does the river become a right-of-way?” Jeff Willis, a presenter and CRMC’s executive director, replied, “Every project stands on its own.”
One speaker asked if the power from the wind facility would be going directly to Massachusetts, adding, “If true, why are we even discussing this?” Emma Rodvien, spokesperson for the EFSB, said the Massachusetts Public Utilities Commission holds the contract with SouthCoast Wind, but the energy the turbines produce would move throughout New England.
“We [New England] have a regional energy grid. Energy is traded on a regional market. It is not a one-to-one” relationship in which energy goes only to the contract holder, she said.
In addition to questions about harm to the environment of the river, the tenor of many comments was that the developers and their project seem unreliable, as well as too big and powerful to fight. Developers of SouthCoast Wind are Shell New Energies US LLC and Ocean Winds North America.
Another person said angrily, “Mayflower Wind is owned by Shell Oil. We are dealing with a behemoth. The people who lease that area [where turbines would be located] for billions of dollars are not interested in what we have to say.”
One speaker questioned the soundness of the project by noting that SouthCoast Wind hired a new CEO, Francis Slingsby, only last November.
Another said, “What are the driving forces behind the decision-makers in these companies [the developers]? Why are they changing their name and CEO? Is someone looking at these companies; will these companies still be around in 20 years?”
The night’s presenters repeatedly assured people that their opinions would be welcomed and heard. “Every jurisdiction has a chance to say yes, no, or maybe,” Willis said. “The CRMC will be looking at how cable affects the seabed.”
Speakers from CRMC and EFSB told the group that SouthCoast Wind has not yet filed an application for the project with the state. One preliminary step, which the developer has done, is to apply for a federal consistency certification from the CRMC, which examines whether the project complies with the state’s Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP). Willis said the state can agree, disagree, or agree with conditions to the consistency certification. Deadline for this reply is June.
Some expressed skepticism about the financial viability of the project, a question provoked by the developers themselves. Last October, SouthCoast (then called Mayflower) Wind, joined with Commonwealth Wind, another offshore wind project, to ask Massachusetts regulators for a one-month suspension of the project, because of concerns about financial viability.
However, last November SouthCoast Wind said it had withdrawn its request for the suspension and said it would provide an analysis of the financial viability of the project, with a solution that “provides value to taxpayers.”
The EFSB is a consolidating permitting body that ultimately must issue or deny a permit for the cable work. Rodvien said when the financing of the project was cast in some doubt last fall, the board asked the developers to demonstrate that, given these doubts, it was worth the board’s time and effort to examine the project. This “show cause” hearing is scheduled for Feb. 27. Rodvien said the developers have told the board they are “prepared to move forward” with the hearing and the project.
Mike Jarbeau, Narragansett baykeeper for Save The Bay, offered a calmer assessment, saying, “We don’t believe the applicant has done enough to prove the Sakonnet River is the least environmentally damaging route.”
When CRMC receives an application from the developer, the project will get a file number and name. Progress of the application will be posted on a CRMC webpage, and people may sign up for news updates and send letters or emails regarding the project. It will also go out to public notice, which will allow the public 30 or 60 days to submit comments, and there will be at least one public hearing on it.