RI coastal regulators affirm NY wind farm project

Unanimous decision comes despite failed negotiations between fishermen, developer

By: - August 23, 2023 12:30 pm

From right to left: Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council Executive Director Jeffrey Willis, Chairman Ray Coia, and attorneys Anthony DeSisto and Mark Hartmann, at the council meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

Another mammoth offshore wind farm planned off Rhode Island’s coastline received the stamp of approval from coastal regulators on Tuesday.

The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council’s (CRMC) 6-0 vote affirms that the Sunrise Wind project meets state coastal policies, while imposing a half-dozen conditions aimed at minimizing disruption to native species, the ocean environment, and the fishermen whose livelihoods depend upon it.

The 924-megawatt project is being co-developed by offshore wind power duo Orsted A/S and Eversource Energy, the same companies behind Revolution and South Fork Wind farms, among others. Though Sunrise Wind will power New York, the area where the turbines would be built sits 17 miles southeast of Block Island.

Which is how the CRMC gets a say, since its Ocean Special Area Management Plan offers regulations for any development within 30 miles offshore of the state coastline. While federal regulators still have the final authority over all offshore wind projects, the CRMC can also recommend mitigation measures to help minimize losses to the fishing industry from the construction and operation of the projects.

Sunrise Wind (in dark blue) sits 17 miles southeast of Block Island and will provide power to New York. (Courtesy Sunrise Wind)

CRMC in its initial review didn’t feel the project met state standards, but later recommended approval with a host of conditions and project revisions.

“The project has undergone significant refinement,” said Kevin Sloan, a CRMC coastal policy analyst.

Those conditions – all of which were agreed to by the developers –  included cutting the number of turbines, originally pitched at up to 122, down to no more than 84. Three of the now-eliminated turbine spots would have sat in the northwest corner of the lease area, closest to the 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. The developers also agreed to avoid putting turbine foundations, the offshore substation and related cables across Cox Ledge “where practicable.”

Many of those caveats came from discussions and negotiations between the developers and a panel of fishing industry representatives known as the Fishermen’s Advisory Board (FAB).

CRMC member Catherine Robinson Hall credited the fishermen’s board for their input and diligence in helping shape a better project.

“Without the FAB and their work on this, it’s clear that we might not have gotten the conditions that we received,” she said. “They’re a critical player.”

They’re also not necessarily happy with the outcome. Marisa Desautel, the attorney representing the FAB, expressed disappointment with the decision in an emailed response on Wednesday.

“The FAB is again disappointed that the state doesn’t support local industry the way they should,” Desautel said. “Other states are at least considering denial of federal consistency. With Rhode Island, an approval is pretty much guaranteed. We are becoming the Windmill State, no longer the Ocean State.”

But negotiations between the FAB and the developer publicly posted as part of the application show the two sides failed to reach agreement, at least in terms of dollars that should be paid to fishermen for their losses.

Even after two rounds of offer and counter-offer, the two sides remained an ocean apart, or at least $159.7 million. Sunrise Wind’s final offer: $17.6 million, which includes $16.9 million in direct compensation to fishermen as well as funding for studies, navigation and safety training. The FAB’s responding counter: $177.3 million, with nearly three times as much in direct compensation as well as 50 times more in navigation and safety funding.

Data disputes 

As with prior wind farm projects, the 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.

A consultant with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI)  hired by the developer, pegged the estimated losses over the 30-year project at $9.3 million. But Kyle Antonelis, senior fisheries analyst hired by the FAB to analyze the WHOI research, pointed to flaws in the analysis.

Among his critiques: the estimated 5% reduction in landings during the wind farm’s operation. Antonelis said the loss would be far greater since many fishermen will avoid the area entirely rather than risk safety hazards of gear entanglement.

Meghan Lapp, a member of the FAB and fisheries liaison for Rhode Island-based frozen seafood distributor Seafreeze Ltd, also said the one nautical mile distance between turbines would be impossible for Seafreeze’s trawlers to navigate through or around.

“We don’t have a lot of maneuverability,” Lapp said. “We need a lot more space. The only way not to interfere with our vessels is to avoid putting turbines in our fishing grounds.”

Meghan Lapp, fisheries liason for Seafreeze Ltd. and a member of the Fishermen’s Advisory Board, addresses the Rhode Island Coastal Management Council on Tuesday. (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

Lapp implored the CRMC to reject the project for not conforming to state ocean policies. But as council members noted, a denial could easily be disregarded by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which has final say over projects in federal waters.

“It’s also possible, if it gets kicked up to the federal level, that the mitigation is left out,” said Kevin Flynn, one of the council members. “The deal, at the end of the day, might be worse.”

The process is, at best, flawed, according to Alisa Richardson, another consultant hired by the FAB. Richardson said it was premature for the council to make a decision when much of the research and data about the environmental effects of the project are unknown.

“I don’t know how you can reasonably foresee a lot of this without the data,” Richardson said. 

But others urged the council to forge ahead anyway.

“We can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good,” said Timmons Roberts, an environmental professor at Brown University. “Offshore wind isn’t perfect. It has impacts… In many cases, these impacts are tiny fractions of the impacts of fossil fuels.”

Fishermen, environmental advocates and labor union leaders were among the people who spoke in public comment at the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council meeting in Tuesday. (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

Labor union leaders touted the jobs already created at ports and marine shipyards by the project, alongside the estimated $125 million economic impact Sunrise Wind will create for Rhode Island. The project also drew support from a trio of fishermen who have partnered with wind farms developers to offer scouting and monitoring services.

“I am not celebrating windmills, but I am not saying screw them either,” said Tyler Morrell, a commercial fisherman. “Fish are going to keep swimming and we will find a way to catch them.”

Meaghan Wims, a spokesperson for Orsted, offered an emailed response to the decision Tuesday night. 

“We’re pleased to reach another milestone in the process of making Sunrise Wind a reality, and we thank the leaders on the Coastal Resources Management Council and the members of the public for their attention to and input on this significant project,” Wims said. “This decision brings Sunrise Wind one step closer to delivering clean, reliable, renewable energy to nearly 600,000 homes, while creating well-paying jobs for highly skilled workers across the Northeast. We look forward to the work ahead as we play our part in building a stronger, more sustainable clean energy future.” 

The council has until Sept. 8 to send its decision to federal regulators. Federal environmental review of the project remains ongoing, with no set decision date according to the BOEM website. Developers expect to begin construction next year, with the wind farm targeted for operation by the end of 2025. 

Updated to include comments from Marisa Desautel, attorney for the Fishermen’s Advisory Board.


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is a reporter covering State House politics along with energy and environmental issues for Rhode Island Current.