It appears that wind energy in Rhode Island may finally be moving forward. Last Thursday, the State Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously to restart the hearing process for the Block Island wind farm development. That was possible because of new legislation, signed by Governor Carcieri that compels the PUC to take potential rate reductions from cost savings as well as economic and environmental benefits to the state into account while making their decision. EcoRI writes that the new law “basically forces the PUC to approve any new power purchase agreement from Deepwater Wind,” including the newly proposed rate of 23.57 cents per kilowatt-hour. The Conservation Law Foundation and Attorney General Patrick Lynch remain opposed to the project, because they believe the law favors one developer, violating language in Rhode Island’s Constitution that “all laws be made for the good of the whole.” However, the hearing process is resumed, and the PUC may issue a decision by the beginning of September.
As I mentioned earlier, the project includes an underwater cable connecting Block Island to the mainland. The proposed rate of 23.57 cents kw/h is higher than current rates on the mainland, but it represents a savings on Block Island, which relies on diesel generators which cost residents as much as 62 cents hw/h.
Until externalities are taken into account, fossil fuels will always appear cheaper than wind energy. In fact, once we truly understand the health and environmental impacts of fossil fuels, renewable energy will appear a bargain in retrospect. If you live downrange of a coal plant, the sulfur dioxide coming out of the smokestack affects your health. If you live around a shale deposit being targeted by natural gas developers, you may have polluted drinking water that can light on fire and damage your brain. If you live on the Earth, continued increases in Greenhouse Gas emissions may lead to a less and less hospitable planet. This project by Deepwater Wind is a pilot project in preparation for a utility-scale project in Federal waters off Rhode Island. However, we need more development. Rhode Islanders need to embrace wave energy, solar energy, and geothermal energy. These developments will not all be utility scale. The revolution of micro power is one that will help communities find ideal solutions for their energy needs.
On Wednesday Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved the development of Cape Wind, an offshore wind farm planned for Nantucket Sound. While plenty of attention has been paid to the project nationally, little has been made of an effort to beat the Cape Wind development as the first offshore wind project in the United States.
Deepwater Wind, a New Jersey company, is proposing the development of two wind projects off of Rhode Island. One, an eight-turbine array, would provide power to Block Island, which now relies on diesel generators. The second project is a utility-scale project that would follow the Block Island farm.
The Block Island project, in addition to providing renewable energy to the island, would also include an underwater cable that would connect the island to the mainland. In fact, the project seemed to be on track until March, when the three-member Public Utilities Commission (PUC) rejected the contract that Deepwater Wind and National Grid agreed to. That contract would have set an initial 24.4 cents/kw-hr rate, which would have increased 3.5% annually over the 20-year contract.
Much was made of Senator Ted Kennedy’s opposition to the Cape Wind development; well here in Rhode Island, we have Christopher Walken opposing the project. Walken owns a house on the Southeast corner of Block Island, which would be facing the project. But wait, there’s more. 2010 is an election year, and this drama is full of head-spinning political twists.
The State General Assembly is debating a bill that would circumvent the PUC and give authority over the contract to different state agencies. The Rhode Island Attorney General, Democrat Patrick Lynch, who is running to replace Republican Governor Carcieri, opposes the circumvention of the PUC. Governor Carcieri believes the PUC misinterpreted its authority. Yesterday the Governor released a letter that the PUC wrote last year, stating that determining the benfits of renewable energy projects is beyond the scope of the commission’s expertise. Of course, the Governor appointed the PUC. Additionally, Brian Hull of RIFuture.org pointed out that in February the PUC quietly approved an 11% rate hike for Rhode Island ratepayers by the London-based National Grid, which itself gained 12% of profit in 2009.
The fate of the Block Island wind project lies with the General Assembly. If it passes, the project could still beat the Cape Wind development in the water, especially considering that the deep-pocketed opponents of Cape Wind are planning a lawsuit. Deepwater Wind considers the Block Island project to be a pre-cursor to the utility-scale project, which would require Federal approval.
The benefits of the Deepwater Wind developments are clear. The underwater cable will link Block Island to the mainland, and allow the island to end use of its diesel generators. Deepwater Wind plans to create a staging area at Quonset Point, the location of an old Naval Air Station, decommissioned in 1974. The development on the old NAS is notable because President Richard Nixon undertook his basic Naval Officer training there. During his Presidency he created the Environmental Protection Agency, among other notable environmental accomplishments. Republican Governor Carcieri hopes that the Deepwater Wind project will add environmental credibility to his own political legacy. In addition to the Deepwater Wind projects, the Quonset Point development is the likely location for Cape Wind’s own turbine assembly. That means actual longterm job creation here in the Ocean State. With Rhode Island mired with 13% unemployment, this development deserves approval.
UPDATE: Here are some details on the contract that Cape Wind and National Grid agreed to yesterday. Matthew Wald questions the contract’s chances with the Massachusetts equivalent of the PUC.