Massachusetts looks westward toward Rhode Island and federal waters for wind plans

Massachusetts looks westward toward Rhode Island and federal waters for wind plans

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Wind energy development plans in Massachusetts are drifting away from Martha’s Vineyard and toward an area in federal waters off both the Massachusetts and Rhode Island coasts.

Deerin Babb-Brott, assistant secretary for ocean and coastal zone management in Massachusetts’ Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA), delivered that news as he joined Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island (RI) Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), at a public meeting at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School on September 16, to discuss Rhode Island’s ocean mapping project.

Known as the special area mapping plan (SAMP), Rhode Island’s project recently became a factor in Massachusetts’ effort to spur wind energy development when the two states’ governors signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on July 26.

A matter of collaboration

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and RI Gov. Donald Carcieri agreed that both states would collaborate in the process to permit and develop offshore wind energy projects in a designated area of mutual interest (AMI) in federal waters. The AMI covers 400-square miles in Rhode Island Sound beginning 12 miles southwest of Martha’s Vineyard and extending 20 miles westward toward Block Island.

The governors also agreed the RI SAMP would serve as the planning and assessment guide to help identify the best locations for offshore wind energy project sites in the AMI, through a task force process. The two states will share the costs and benefits.

Governor Patrick requested that Rhode Island conduct two public meetings in Massachusetts about the SAMP process, which were held in Dartmouth and on Martha’s Vineyard last week.

Although SAMP is a regulatory document that can only apply to siting in RI waters, Mr. Babb-Brott said the plan includes information gathered about federal waters that would assist the two states in identifying an area to develop and guide siting decisions. The next step is to develop a process by which Massachusetts stakeholders can comment on SAMP information.

“Our expectation is that we would convene working meetings on Martha’s Vineyard and working meetings in New Bedford on these issues and give folks the opportunity to be part of those discussions,” Mr. Babb-Brott said.

Since the Massachusetts area of the AMI mostly consists of open ocean waters, he said comments and data from the state’s fishermen would be an important element. Rhode Island has agreed that a Massachusetts fishermen’s advisory board would work with the state and with potential developers to assess the wind energy project sites and discuss appropriate mitigation.

Mr. Babb-Brott said the federal Department of Energy (DOE) identified significant wind energy areas off the East Coast and developed a formal task force process to involve coastal states in the evaluation of those areas. Each state from Maine to North Carolina has a task force of local, state, and federal officials, as well as tribal government representatives.

The Massachusetts task force includes local representatives from the six Island towns, Dukes County government, Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). The multi-state task forces will advise the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), formerly named the Minerals Management Service (MMS). As part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, BOEM is ultimately responsible for the siting, leasing, and wind energy development process.

“The 12-step process BOEM uses is what ends up seven to ten years from now with a project in the water,” Mr. Babb-Brott said. The task force will be involved in each step, he added.

The Massachusetts task force has met three times, with a focus on identifying boundaries for offshore wind energy development. “We had concerns about the distance from shore in terms of visual impact,” Mr. Babb-Brott said.

“If you extend the buffer out to 12 miles, based on comments coming in, based on our looking at what seems to be a more reasonable distance for pushing projects offshore, it’s in the interest of wind energy developers and in our interest in facilitating a renewable energy industry not to introduce the kind of things that cause people not to want these projects near them,” he added. “Or in the simplest phrase, as folks may talk about tonight, there are folks that don’t want to look at these things, and that’s a reasonable position.”

The SAMP side

Mr. Fugate, who served as SAMP project manager, said concerns about climate change prompted the effort. The 28 coastal states of the United States use almost 80 percent of the nation’s electricity. That makes energy demand and consumption a coastal problem, he said.

Rhode Island initiated the SAMP project in 2008, as a three-year scientific study of all waters within 30 miles of its coast. Current technology limits AC electrical transmission to a 20-mile limit offshore, Mr. Fugate said.

CRMC initially received $3.2 million to start the SAMP effort, which included participation from BOEM and the Army Corps of Engineers. RI Sea Grant contributed money, and the University of Rhode Island provided about $1 million in in-kind services from 60 scientists, graduate students, and legal experts, Mr. Fugate said.

SAMP studies included mapping ocean floor geology, bird, fish, marine mammals, and turtle surveys, and collecting data about commercial and recreational fishermen, shipping, cultural resources, and physical oceanography.

Based on data analysis, Mr. Fugate said CRMC took some areas of potential development off the table. For example, since diving ducks forage in water about 20 meters (65 feet) deep or less, sites at those depths were eliminated. Areas where there may be unexploded ordnance or terminal moraines (that is, hard rock and debris left by glaciers) also will be avoided.

In a question and answer period that followed, MVC commission member Doug Sederholm of Chilmark asked whether, given the impressive level of research and analysis Rhode Island’s Ocean SAMP contains, Massachusetts might do the same in regard to the Martha’s Vineyard and Gosnold wind energy areas.

“We don’t propose to go back into those now and do additional work or propose development,” Mr. Babb-Brott said. “We think that’s appropriate now for the Martha’s Vineyard side, within Martha’s Vineyard’s and the tribe’s purview, and if development is proposed in the future, then there would be significant additional background work. We’re really focused on the federal water side.”

Several audience members expressed concern about the impacts of offshore wind turbine projects on fishing, including Warren Doty, Chilmark selectman and chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, and member Bill Alwardt, an Oak Bluffs commercial fisherman.

“We’re losing ground — we’re already losing 28 square miles of Nantucket Sound,” Mr. Alwardt said. “All I see is Martha’s Vineyard being picked on and us being put out of business.”

Mr. Fugate said Rhode Island fishermen share the same concerns and that fishermen from both states should be included in the planning process.

Former state representative Eric Turkington, who works as a legal advisor to POINT (Protect Our Islands Now for Tomorrow), said that Rhode Island’s ocean plan seems to recognize cultural resources more than the Massachusetts plan. Mr. Babb-Brott said the state reached out to representatives of the Wampanoag Tribe several times in developing the Ocean Plan and did not receive substantive information about resources or cultural artifacts.

“As I say now, as we move forward, we’re not continuing the evaluation or moving into development within those areas, certainly the Martha’s Vineyard area,” Mr. Babb-Brott said. “To the extent that we’re looking now at focusing on the other side of the line, both tribes [Aquinnah and Mashpee] are represented on the task force.”

A change in plans

Mr. Babb-Brott knows Islanders’ concerns about potential offshore wind turbine developments near Martha’s Vineyard. Last fall he and John Weber, ocean planning manager for the Massachusetts office of coastal zone management, conducted a well attended public hearing at the regional high school about the draft Massachusetts Ocean Plan.

Several in the audience at last week’s meeting had also attended that hearing to voice opposition to the state’s plan, including members of the grass-roots organization POINT .

Mr. Babb-Brott’s latest comments about the state’s change in focus from developing wind energy projects in state waters to federal waters may have been welcome news to many of them.

The final version of a plan, released January 4 by EEA Secretary Ian Bowles, designated only two wind energy areas suitable for commercial scale development in Massachusetts state waters. One is off Cuttyhunk Island (Gosnold Wind Energy Area), part of the town of Gosnold. The other is south of Nomans Land (Martha’s Vineyard Wind Energy Area), part of Chilmark.

“I guess I’d say that our perspective on the Martha’s Vineyard and the Gosnold sites is that the Martha’s Vineyard area was designated based on available data, with clear discussion of the fact that substantial additional work was going to be necessary,” Mr. Babb-Brott said. “That is now under the jurisdiction of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which is developing a potential process.”

The ocean management plan granted the MVC the ability to define the “appropriate scale” of renewable energy projects in the Nomans zone.

However, the plan declared the Cuttyhunk zone —which has generated Island consternation over the effect banks of turbines would have on the scenic view from Gay Head — outside the MVC’s purview and in the hands of the elected officials of Gosnold.

According to Mr. Babb-Brott, the state is now working with the Gosnold community, which does not have current plans for wind energy development, contrary to some reports in the media. Gosnold officials have drafted an initial MOU requesting regulatory standing similar to that of the MVC and Cape Cod Commission in evaluating wind energy projects, he said.