Islanders air wind turbine concerns with state officials
State energy and environmental officials assured Islanders that their voices will be heard and their concerns considered as the state's draft Ocean Plan nears finalization on December 31.
"The secretary's perspective is that we're not going to ram our projects down the throats of a place that doesn't want them," said Deerin Babb-Brott, an assistant secretary to Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles. "The best kind of project is going to be a project that's developed by consensus. So the Ocean Plan, as it reads right now, says we will work with the Martha's Vineyard community moving forward."
The Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) and All-Island Selectmen organized the October 21 Ocean Plan discussion at the regional high school as a follow-up to a formal public hearing on September 23 in Vineyard Haven. The plan addresses potential wind turbine development in state waters.
Mr. Babb-Brott, assistant secretary for Oceans and Coastal Zone Management in the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EOEEA), and ocean services manager John Webber of the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management, conducted the public hearing, the fifth and last during the public comment phase of the plan.
Although Mr. Babb-Brott and Mr. Webber were limited to accepting public comment for the record at the hearing, many Island town officials and community members asked questions anyway and wanted more discussion. Mr. Babb-Brott offered to return for a less formal meeting before November 23, when the public comment period for the draft plan officially ends.
He and Mr. Webber attended last week's meeting with EOEAA Assistant Secretary for Federal Affairs Bill White and EOEAA general counsel Ken Kimmell.
About 50 people, most of them town officials and MVC commissioners, turned out for the meeting. State Senator Robert O'Leary, who helped draft the Ocean Act and has been key in development of the Ocean Plan, attended the meeting, as did State Rep. Tim Madden.
Senator O'Leary serves as a legislative member on a 17-member Ocean Advisory Commission (OAC) that advised Secretary Bowles in developing the Ocean Plan. Jo-Ann Taylor, the MVC Coastal Planner and District of Critical Planning Concern (DCPC) Coordinator, served as the commission's representative on the OAC.
Senator O'Leary said that although he intended that the Ocean Act bill would give planning commissions with regulatory authority the final say on projects within their respective regions, the final plan does not reflect that.
Thinking behind the plan
The draft Ocean Plan would allow for small wind farms of 10 or fewer turbines off the immediate Vineyard coast and larger wind farms in two areas, one southwest of Nomans Land and the other west of Cuttyhunk.
The draft plan allows regional planning agencies such as the MVC to allocate each coastal region's 10 wind turbines. The commercial-scale wind energy development areas could support up to 166 wind turbines.
In a follow-up to a brief overview he provided at the public hearing, Mr. Babb-Brott gave a more detailed explanation of the criteria the state used to choose two sites close to Martha's Vineyard for commercial wind energy development.
Exclusionary factors included navigation channels and areas of shipping and boat traffic, commercial fishing areas, special aquatic sites, particularly eelgrass beds, right whale habitat, and bird resources. The biggest factors were wind and water depths of less than 30 meters.
After the process of elimination, the two areas near the Vineyard remained the choice sites, Mr. Babb-Brott said. However, state waters are not the long-term interest of Massachusetts, he added. "The state's interest long-term is in the large areas of Federal waters where major projects of scale can be constructed, that take advantage of the economies of scale, that take advantage of the fact that they are much farther removed from areas of concentrated coastal activity like commercial and recreational fishing," he said. "And they're either at the extreme limit of visibility from the islands or the mainland, or they're over the horizon."
The challenge is finding technology that works in deeper water, Mr. Babb-Brott said. Although companies offer different approaches, most haven't been tested in real conditions, he said. The EEA bases its criteria for technology on National Renewable Energy Laboratory recommendations and the consensus of opinion on what works best in water less than 30 meters deep.
A joint federal and state task force
Wind energy projects in deeper waters, however, offer the path of least resistance in terms of permitting and local and community concerns, Mr. Babb-Brott said. With the focus on deep-water projects, the Minerals Management Service (MMS) has issued new rules governing marine renewable energy development in Federal waters.
One of the provisions allows for Federal/State task forces to assist MMS in the development of information about the environment, the economy, the community and cultural aspects associated with the leasing process for areas of offshore waters for wind farm project development.
Mr. Babb-Brott said that U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar agreed to create a Federal/State task force with Massachusetts at Governor Deval Patrick's request. The task force includes state and local elected officials, federal and state agency representatives, representation from affected tribes, and MMS personnel.
"A number of folks around the table here are going to be getting letters this week announcing the formation of the task force, inviting them to participate, and announcing that the first meeting of that task force is going to be November 19 at the Mass Maritime Academy," Mr. Babb-Brott said. Those invited to join will include the chairmen of the Island towns' boards of selectmen, the MVC chairman, and similar representatives from Nantucket, as well Senator O'Leary and Representative Madden, he added.
Although development in Federal waters is ultimately more enticing, Mr. Babb-Brott said the Patrick administration believes it would be prudent to pursue a site in state waters as well, since it will take so long to develop projects farther offshore. The leasing process for a deeper site in Federal waters will likely take six to eight years, compared to two to three years for a site in state waters.
"We think global warming and climate change is real, and we want to get out there with legitimate and real ways of mitigating that," Mr. Babb-Brott said. "Obviously, the challenge is doing that in a way that doesn't trash things that are important to other people."
Most of the questions asked and comments made by Islanders at last week's discussion concerned the choice of sites and the state's failure to involve the local communities more in the planning process. Senator O'Leary said that he and Representative Madden planned to meet with Secretary Bowles regarding some changes they would like to see in the draft plan, including community benefits, MVC involvement in determining appropriateness of the scale of projects, and consideration of scenic values.
MVC executive director Mark London said in an email on Friday that he thought the meeting offered a good exchange of information and concerns, but that there are still many unanswered questions.
"I got the impression that people were generally favorable to the proposal for a process of much closer collaboration among the Commonwealth, the MVC, the towns, and the Tribe in the coming months to further examine the two commercial Wind Energy Areas in Dukes County," Mr. London said. "It has to be clarified how much this will be able to shape the proposal in the Ocean Plan to designate these two areas."
In a follow-up phone call, Ms. Taylor said she was encouraged by Wednesday's discussion. "It's up to us to get what we want out of the Ocean Plan, and I think everybody understands we still have a long way to go before there's a satisfactory conclusion," she said. "I think as a community, as a people, as leaders, we need to continue to sort out for ourselves what it is we want, especially what kind of economic benefits we want to achieve. That's pretty open-ended in the plan now. That discussion really hasn't taken place on the Vineyard."
To submit comment on the draft plan and for transcripts and videos of public hearings, visit the website commpres.env.state.ma.us/ mop/.