One of two wind turbines off the coast of Virginia Beach that comprise Dominion Energy’s Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind pilot project. (Sarah Vogelsong/ Virginia Mercury)
The fishing industry and offshore wind developers are again at odds over how a mammoth array of 80-story-high wind turbines will affect ocean species, and the fishermen whose livelihoods depend on them.
And without consensus on the potential damage, the two sides also can’t agree on what measures – including money – are enough to offset the harm caused by the Revolution Wind project. Even a 33% cut to the number of wind turbines – from 100 to 65 – negotiated by state coastal regulators hasn’t done much to reduce conflict.
The back and forth played out over an hourslong hearing at the Department of Administration building Tuesday as the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council considered whether to sign off on the project. Ultimately, the council pushed off a decision to allow more time for public comment and deliberation, which will resume on May 9.
The 704-megawatt wind farm slated for federal waters off the coast of Block Island still requires final approval from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. While the process for leasing and reviewing major offshore wind turbines largely rests at the federal level, the CRMC through its Ocean Special Area Management Plan gets a say for wind farm projects within 30 miles offshore of the state coastline. They can also recommend mitigation measures to help minimize losses to the fishing industry from the construction and operation of the projects.
‘Fairly significant’ refinements
Developers Orsted A/S and Eversource Energy LLC have agreed to pay $12.9 million, to commercial and charter boat fishermen to offset potential revenue losses caused by the noise, electromagnetic field waves, boulder moving and other disturbances that the towers and undersea cables cause to the delicate underwater ecosystem. The developers would also spend $300,000 on a study to better understand how the project affects native species, and tack on up to $5 million more in compensation if the study shows the damage is worse than expected.
The developer has also scaled back the number of places where it will drill turbine foundations into the seabed – from 100 to 79 options, only 65 of which will be used for turbines plus two for offshore substations – to further limit environmental disruption. The reduction in turbine positions came as a result of an 18-month discussion with CRMC’s expert staff.
“The project refinements have been fairly significant,” said Kevin Sloan, a coastal policy analyst for the CRMC. The staff in its report also recommended the developer use a turbine installation technique called micrositing to avoid the most sensitive habitats in the area. Part of the 83,000-acre lease sits on a glacial moraine habitat called Cox Ledge which is regarded by the fishing and environmental communities as the crown jewel of New England for its diverse array of species, including the increasingly rare Atlantic cod.
But the Fisherman’s Advisory Board, a panel of fishing industry representatives that advises the CRMC, isn’t on board, insisting the project will destroy the sensitive ocean habitat, in turn costing them their careers and the state a key sector of its economy.
“We don’t think there is any mitigation that can effectively offset the deleterious effects on the Atlantic Ocean,” said Chris Brown, a commercial fisherman and FAB member. “We don’t want money, we want a healthy ocean.”
Brown and other fishing members indicated they’d rather not have the wind farm at all. But they also submitted a memo laying out 19 additional measures the developer could take to minimize harm.
We don’t think there is any mitigation that can effectively offset the deleterious effects on the Atlantic Ocean. We don’t want money, we want a healthy ocean.
– Chris Brown, a commercial fisherman and Fisherman’s Advisory Board member
Kellen Ingalls, project development director at Orsted, agreed to certain requests related to communication with fishing and safety groups, but said other conditions were up to federal review and permitting, not the developer.
The FAB did not ask for more money – technically, the CRMC cannot set monetary compensation as a condition of its approval – but that doesn’t mean the group doesn’t think there should be more paid out.
How to measure fishing industry loss?
Todd Guilfoos, an assistant professor of environment and natural resources economics at the University of Rhode Island who acts as a consultant for the FAB, calculated a $21.6 million mitigation package, based on an estimated $66.5 million revenue loss to the industry over the life of the project.
In contrast, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which was hired by the developer, recommended a $3.5 million mitigation package based on its own estimations for losses from the Revolution Wind project – about one-third what the developer offered, and six times less than what Guilfoos suggested.
The biggest source of discrepancy stems from how each group is measuring losses to the commercial fishing industry. Much of this analysis is hypothetical since there are no utility-scale wind farms up and running in the United States. Instead analysts use local and federal data about fish landings and existing revenue to estimate compensation based on how much fishing ground and species would be lost.
The CRMC staff in its report also concluded it was impossible to determine if the project would benefit or hurt the state marine economic sector.
Ingalls characterized these variances as “professional disagreement,” that the study the developer has agreed to pay for will help to clarify for this and future projects.
The council will resume the hearing on May 9 with opportunity for public comment before beginning its deliberation, which can follow or stray from the staff recommendation. It must submit its decision to federal regulators by May 12.
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is slated to release its final environmental review of the project in July, with construction proposed to start in early 2024. Once completed, the project will provide power to Rhode Island and Connecticut.
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