Scientists Pitch Offshore Wind at Little Compton Forum
Opponents seethe at restrictions on discussion
March 22, 2023
LITTLE COMPTON, R.I. — A panel of six scientists and wildlife experts stood Monday night before an audience of about 200 people here — a mini-hub of opposition to offshore wind projects — and presented 10-minute lectures that offered a generally upbeat view of offshore wind energy.
A few minutes into the closing Q&A session, in which a moderator read questions from index cards submitted by the audience, a couple of audience members rebelled, declaring the presentation biased and not nearly as interactive as organizers had promised.
An audience member, Constance Gee, obviously frustrated and irate, walked up to the moderator and declared, “You have the mic all this time. This is your idea of community involvement?”
The moderator, Priscilla de la Cruz, senior director of government affairs at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, told Gee the gathering was intended to be an informational session. Gee stalked out of the auditorium at Wilbur and McMahon Schools and into the lobby, where a handful of other offshore wind opponents had also gathered.
“The panel was lopsided,” said Elizabeth Knight, a director for Green Oceans, a Little Compton-based group that opposes offshore wind. She spoke from the middle of a scrum of annoyed people who felt blocked from being heard in the Q&A process happening in the auditorium. “Some of our questions were designed to educate the audience,” Knight added.
“This presentation was a marketing ploy,” said Martina Halsey, who had also retreated to the school lobby after Gee challenged the Q&A process. “We thought this would be interactive, but it was not.”
Gee said, “I believe they are afraid to hear us speak. Afraid that we will say something that will show we are knowledgeable, and they will not have answers.”
The March 20 event, which was moved in advance to a larger venue than originally planned because of heavy interest by the public, was introduced by Rep. Michelle McGaw, D-Portsmouth, who has declared herself a supporter of offshore wind, provided that it is done with safeguards. The meeting was organized with help from the Green Energy Consumers Alliance.
Two offshore wind projects, Revolution Wind and SouthCoast (formerly Mayflower) Wind, are now moving actively through the permitting process. Both would be located in parts of a federally designated wind energy area to the south and east of the Rhode Island coast. Revolution Wind, with up to 100 turbines, would be about 13 miles southeast of Point Judith.
The panelists presented a lot of information, largely leaning toward the urgency of developing renewable energy and the viability of wind power, but the real concerns of the audience popped into high relief during the Q&A.
Via the question cards, someone noted that the Block Island Wind Farm is only five turbines, and asked if planners could accurately generalize from that the impact of 100 turbines proposed by Revolution Wind.
Amber Hewett, the offshore wind energy program director for the National Wildlife Federation, emphasized the urgency of creating renewable energy versus the alternative of fossil fuels. “We are doing this because we have to. Saying no to offshore wind means saying yes to something else. We have a difficult decision now: How will we keep the lights on? This is a choice we have to make.”
Her answer about other sources of energy dovetailed with a question about environmental justice. Panelist J. Timmons Roberts, an environmental studies and sociology professor at Brown University, said he has been to Louisiana, in places where an oil refinery is located just across a backyard fence from peoples’ houses, usually in poorer communities.
“People are living 50 feet from flaring natural gas,” Roberts said. “In West Virginia, mountain tops are being removed. The gas we are using to keep our homes warm did not magically appear. We have to look at ourselves and question what we are asking other people to bear that we are not willing to bear. Turbines 12 miles out to sea are a lot different than having an oil refinery across the street.”
One question asked about the impact of the SouthCoast Wind project on views and recreation around the Sakonnet River. One portion of that project, still in the approval process, would have cables laid on the floor of the Sakonnet River to carry power from offshore turbines to the land.
Panelist Dave Monti, a charter boat captain and vice chairman of the Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Council, has closely observed the creation of the Block Island Wind Farm since before its inception. He has spoken repeatedly about the benefits of those five turbines in that they create hard structure — artificial reefs — below the surface that have attracted lots of fish, including previously rare species.
Monti said the University of Rhode Island has studied the effect of the wind facility on tourism in the area and has found no negative impacts. In fact, he said, the turbines are now a popular location for sport fishing, and his charter boat guests often ask to travel to the installation simply to see it.
Regarding the question about views of turbines from land, panelist Shilo Felton, a senior scientist at the Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute, said the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), which has final oversight over offshore wind projects, publishes models of what the installations would look like from land.
The online model view of the Revolution Wind project shows the profile of the turbines as tiny objects barely peaking above the horizon, as seen from shore.
Another audience question pertained to donations by large wind-energy developers to environmental organizations. The Little Compton-based opposition group, Green Oceans, often and repeatedly implies that donations from the wind industry to environmental groups will create bias in their views of the industry. But several panelists said their groups are not in the pocket of the wind industry.
Panelists speaking for the National Wildlife Federation, the New England for Offshore Wind Coalition, and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island firmly stated that they do not take donations from wind developers.
The need for renewables
Well before the kerfuffle that interrupted the Q&A session, panelists made pointed arguments about the need for renewable energy sources, and for the efforts by environmentalists and government agencies to reduce harms to the environment.
The panel members, each allowed 10 minutes to make their case, included Roberts, the environmental studies professor from Brown University; a member of Climate Jobs Rhode Island; an activist charter fishing boat owner; experts with the National Wildlife Federation and the Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute; and an oceanographer from the University of Rhode Island.
Roberts got the speaking series underway with a harrowing picture of the fast pace of climate change and the urgency to find solutions, such as renewable energy sources, as soon as possible.
Roberts stressed three major points: action on the global warming crisis is needed right now; Rhode Island will suffer from climate change and could benefit from large-scale deployment of offshore wind; and offshore wind is the only resource we have at scale to allow decarbonization that science says is necessary.
Roberts cited some familiar facts, noting that global temperatures have risen more than 1 degree Celsius since the 19th century and that the number of days of 80 degrees Fahrenheit or higher at T.F. Green International Airport have increased from about 50 in 1950 to 80 or so the past few years.
He said the Climate Action Tracker, which evaluates how countries are doing on their climate actions and pledges, has graded the United States as “insufficient.”
Rhode Island gets 54% of its electricity from natural gas, Roberts said, meaning that the $4 billion a year Rhode Island spends on fossil fuel energy goes out of state, to places like Pennsylvania and to the Big Oil companies.
Other panelists had positive views of offshore wind development from the standpoint of their areas of expertise. Mike Roles, policy director for Climate Jobs Rhode Island, emphasized the value of the offshore wind industry in bringing “thousands and thousands of jobs into Rhode Island.”
“This is an investment in clean energy, people, and communities,” he said.
Monti, the charter boat captain, presented a slide captioned “Fishing Among Giants,” which showed a dazzling overhead photo of the Block Island Wind Farm, and photos of mussels blanketing the turbine foundations and sport fishermen displaying large cod, sea bass, mahi-mahi, bluefish tuna, and a shark.
Monti said the Block Island project was “done right” in the sense that studies of the project were done before, during, and after construction and operation. He said a seven-year study showed cod and black sea bass “in greater abundance at the Block Island Wind Farm than in two control areas.”
Monti said studies of wind facilities off the coast of western Europe show that “fish abundance is greater in the wind farms that in areas without wind farms,” a trend that he attributes, at Block Island at least, to more underwater reef structure.
Monti noted the Southern New England Offshore Wind Energy Science Forum found no environmental harm due to the Block Island Wind Farm.
Panelist Bob Kenney, a URI oceanographer, spoke about the North Atlantic right whale, an endangered species that includes only 304 individual animals at present. Like other experts, Kenney said the biggest dangers to right whales are from strikes by ships and entanglement in fishing gear.
He said two and a half whales, on average, are killed every year by ships, and 80% of right whales have been entangled by fishing gear at least once. He showed slides of tragic views of mangled whales onshore; one slide showed a whale that had died after plastic fishing rope got entangled in his mouth when he was an infant and strangled him as he grew.
The right whale population began declining about 2010, Kenney said, partly due to the warming of ocean water. Adult females usually have a new calf about every three years, but “calving rates have declined because females are not getting enough food,” Kenney said. “Their food supply is cold-water species and they are wandering around to find more to eat.”
This leads to extending the period of time between pregnancies, and, thus, fewer calves.
Gee, the audience member who questioned the Q&A process, said she was particularly concerned about “incidental takes” of marine mammals that may be requested by wind developers and granted by the federal government during the permitting process. The language used by the NOAA Fisheries is “taking by incidental harassment.”
This means that the government gives permission to developers to do some unintentional harm to animals during their work at sea. NOAA divides “takes” into Level A and Level B harassment. Level A includes harassment that can cause permanent injury; Level B includes harassment that leads to behavioral disturbance. A common example of a Level B harassment is noise disturbance.
Gee said she examined documentation for 26 offshore wind projects in the United States and tallied up 600,000 “take” authorizations. Kenney was unbothered by the number. He said “take” or “harassment” can mean simply that animals are “bothered,” for instance by noise. He said the high number was feasible because scientists, using technology from the Duke University Marine Geospatial Laboratory, can learn the exact number of animals of any species located in an area of water at any given time.
“It’s a big, scary number,” Kenney said, with a shrug. “And some of the same animals may be counted many times.”
After the meeting, Knight said, “The panel was either lying or misinformed [about takes] because NOAA has granted both Level A and Level B to wind companies.” She gave the example of the Vineyard Wind project off Massachusetts, which was granted harassment authorizations for 15 species of whales and dolphins. In that list, the highest numbers of authorizations, for the common dolphin, was 35 Level A harassments and 4,646 Level B harassments. For the North Atlantic right whale, the numbers of allowed harassments were zero for Level A and 20 for Level B.
For a long time, anti-offshore wind groups have been using potential threats to North Atlantic right whales as a principal argument against projects off the southern New England coast.
Shaping an industry
Felton of the Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute is an expert on seabirds and bats. She said wind turbines have the potential to be a danger to birds because they may be attracted to the structures and collide with them. Also, “migrating and commuting birds might have to use more energy because of the barrier effect.”
The story of turbines’ effect on bats is unclear, Felton indicated, adding that long-distance migrating bats have been spotted far offshore. Telemetry receivers, which measure and transmit data wirelessly from remote sources, are being tested as a means to track bats’ presence.
The presence and risk to sea ducks has been studied off Cape Cod and Nantucket Shoals, Felton said. She said a large portion of sea area was removed early on from a federally designated wind energy area off southern New England in order to protect sea ducks, but “none of the areas expected to bring power to Rhode Island overlap with sea duck” habitat, Felton said.
Hewett, of the National Wildlife Federation, said she “wanted to offer comfort” to the audience in the sense of assuring people that the federation and similar organizations are doing everything possible to reduce environmental harms from offshore wind.
“We realized that climate change is a leading threat to wildlife and offshore wind jumped off the page for its untapped potential,” Hewett said.
The federation has a six-point definition of responsible offshore development, starting with the declaration that projects “must avoid, minimize, mitigate, and monitor adverse impact on wildlife and habitats.”
“If a project does not meet our standards we will not support it,” Hewitt said. In fact, the federation litigated against an offshore wind project in New Jersey that did not meet its standards to protect the environment.
She noted the entire United States now hosts only seven offshore wind turbines — five in Rhode Island and two off the Virginia coast.
“Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey have understood the value of offshore wind for a long time,” Hewitt said, “and there is still time to shape and influence what this industry will look like.”
Shaping the new industry in the United States means that “we have a lot to get right in a lot of places” quickly, Hewitt said. She named three major components of offshore wind development in the United States as wildlife protection, development of the workforce and supply chain, and community engagement.
“They all have to be done on a short time frame,” she said.