Block Island, R.I. — On a busy afternoon during the end-of-summer tourist onslaught, between his daily routine of charter fishing trips, restocking bait and unloading rental kayaks, Chris Willi paused to reflect on the future of this 11-square-mile island he’s called home since 1992.
Clearly, the immediate demands of his workday were far more pressing than the start of construction of five wind turbines three miles out in the Atlantic Ocean, despite being heralded as a groundbreaking project that promises to be the first-in-the-nation offshore wind farm.
Taking the long-term view, the island’s historical society casts the project as a new chapter in Block Islanders’ practice of harnessing the wind and the sea that goes back thousands of years.
“I have no objection to it,” Willi said Wednesday, as he poured a container of eels into a tub outside his shop, Block Island Fishworks, amid a constant stream of bicyclists and mopeds passing by on Ocean Avenue. “From a fishing perspective, it’s going to make the fishing better around there, because there’s going to be a lot of structures acting like artificial reefs for the fish.”
Underway for a month, the construction of the wind farm “has been a long time coming,” Willi noted — studied, debated and analyzed by federal, state and local permitting authorities and island residents on all sides of the issue since 2008.
Once the turbines start turning the offshore winds into 30 megawatts of electricity, projected by developer Deepwater Wind by the end of 2016, Block Island will start fully living up to the identity it’s adopted for itself as a “conservation-minded island,” Willi said.
Now, he sees contradiction — just under 45 percent of the land is preserved from development, but the electricity produced by the local power company is not environmentally friendly.
“Now we’re getting all our power from diesel generators, which are archaic,” he said. “Why not use renewables?”
An important added benefit, he said, is that the project will bring a fiber optic line as part of a 22-mile power cable to Narragansett that will both send excess power from the turbines, and transmit it back to the island from the New England power grid when needed, providing a new connection to the mainland many Block Islanders have long sought.
“Now, it’s hard to do business out here with unreliable Internet,” Willi said, referring to the slow service now supplied by microwave towers. A member of the island’s school committee, he said the new service is sorely needed for students and teachers.
“The school’s bandwidth is maxed out,” he said.
While business owners and residents like Willi are welcoming the wind farm, looking forward to a projected 30 to 35 percent drop in utility bills that now average more than triple those on the mainland, some opponents of the project still aren’t convinced.
The reality of seeing the first two of the five platforms for the turbines in the water alongside construction barges and cranes hasn’t softened their conviction that Deepwater Wind, a subsidiary of the $35 billion international investment firm D.E. Shaw Group, has used its clout and connections to win approvals for a project that will enrich its own coffers at the expense of Rhode Islanders.
“This is a hedge fund that looks for opportunities like Block Island. They used the ignorance and ego of the people of the town and state to move this project forward,” said Chris Warfel, one of the five-member Town Council who said he was elected three years ago largely because of his outspoken opposition. “The process was way below board, and the town was irresponsible.”
Having made his living in the utility industry, Warfel, a 17-year island resident, said he analyzed the project as well as Block Island’s power problems, and concluded that they could have been solved much more cheaply with energy conservation and on-island resources.
He accused the Block Island Power Co. of being a “rogue utility” not properly regulated by the state that left the island vulnerable to Deepwater’s pitch.
“I see no joy in taking this historic viewshed and adulterating it for the benefit of D.E. Shaw,” he said.
Summer residents Jon and Rosemarie Ives have front-row seats to the construction site from the deck of the family cottage Jon Ives has been coming to since 1947.
Once the five towers and turbines are in place, each 670 feet tall, “the most scenic, unblemished view in all of Rhode Island” will be scarred by the hallmarks of industrialization, Jon Ives said.
“If we want to stay here, we’ll have to adjust to it,” he said.
“But this is not the way to do green,” added Rosemarie Ives.
Like Warfel, they concluded through their own separate analyses that Deepwater Wind never got the scrutiny it should have, both in the environmental reviews and public processes.
Rosemarie Ives said she looked at the project through the eyes of a former public official committed to open government, having served as the mayor of their main residence in Redmond, Wash., for 16 years.
Her husband said he came to his position from the lens of his professional career as an environmental consultant and wildlife biologist concerned about the harm the turbines could cause to migratory birds.
“If this were 12 to 15 miles offshore, I’d have no issue,” he said.
The Ives’ are also skeptical the project will result in the promised utility savings for Block Islanders, or that it will resolve Internet access problems.
They also point to a lawsuit filed this month in Providence federal court by the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, a retired businessman and former state legislator that contends electricity rates for mainland residents will jump as a result of the agreement between National Grid and Deepwater.
It provides more evidence, the Ives’ said, that from the time the proposal was initiated, regulatory agencies seemed hell-bent to give whatever approvals were necessary.
“The team that did the visual impact review just did an armchair analysis, using pictures taken by Deepwater,” Rosemarie Ives said.
“And they just accepted Deepwater’s environmental assessment, instead of doing their own,” Jon Ives said.
For years they have written letters and submitted testimony detailing the major flaws they found in the proposal, a practice they vow to continue.
“The opposition participated at every opportunity that was available, but the public process was a charade,” Rosemarie Ives said. “Every aspect of the state dealing with this project has been corrupted.”
Less than a half mile to the east of the Ives’ home sits Southeast Light, one of the most popular destinations on the island.
Now, visitors to the historic brick lighthouse get a clear view of the wind farm under construction from the front lawn.
“There are pluses and minuses to everything,” said Donna Walsh, visiting Block Island from her home in Upper Saddle River, N.J., as she looked out to the site.
“We need a greener planet,” added another visitor, Christine White of Garden City, N.Y. “If you don’t like this view, there’s 10 miles to look at the other way.
“I’m all for it,” she said of the wind farm.
While there is no doubt that the views from the lighthouse will change dramatically once the turbines are installed, whether that will be a benefit or a harm will be in the eyes of the beholder.
There is little doubt, however, that the lighthouse as well as the Block Island Historical Society will reap some benefit.
To compensate the lighthouse and the society for the impacts, the R.I. State Historic Preservation Office and the Army Corps of Engineers, which granted key permits for the project, decided that Deepwater must pay the two organizations a total of $2.5 million.
The funds will be used to restore and maintain the lighthouse, and for educational programs and enhancements of collections.
“We had to negotiate the mitigation agreement,” said Jeff Grybowski, chief executive officer of Deepwater. “We’ve had a long relationship with those two groups.”
Construction at the site, he said, will continue through this fall, with the goal of having all five platforms built and anchored into the sea floor before winter.
Work would stop during the winter months and resume in the spring, with turbine installation slated to start next summer.
The start of construction in July, he said, generated significant new national attention for the project.
“The attention level comes with the territory,” he said. “It’s raised the profile of offshore wind in the U.S., which is important to moving this nascent industry along. That was the intention all along.”
The Block Island wind farm is intended as a demonstration project for larger wind farms Deepwater plans to build.
A site in federal waters to the north, off the coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, would be developed with up to 200 turbines, and a similar-sized project of the coast of New Jersey is also planned, Grybowski said.
A third project in the Pacific Northwest is also on the drawing board.
To persistent skeptics and naysayers, Grybowski maintains that the Block Island project will ultimately put lingering doubts to rest.
“I’m focused on building a good project,” he said. “The proof will be in the pudding.”
Barbara MacMullan, chairwoman of the island’s Electric Utility Task Group, has long been a supporter of the wind farm.
The start of construction last month, four months after Deepwater announced it had secured $290 million in financing for the project, made what had for years remained an abstract proposal finally seem real, she said.
“It’s really, actually happening,” she said. “Because they’re a private company, we didn’t know their full financing or their long-term plans, so until they put steel in the water, it was still an open question.
“Now,” she added, “people are accepting it as a reality. They realize what it’s going to bring us, the effect on our economy.”
She doesn’t believe the full impact has hit islanders yet, though.
Since the groundbreaking came during the peak of their busy season, many islander residents and business owners were too busy keeping up with the tourists to pay full attention.
During the peak of tourist season, a steady procession of ferries from Point Judith, R.I., Newport and New London disgorges 12,000 to 15,000 tourists daily, plus pallet after pallet of beer, wine and food to feed them.
“Right now, everybody who lives and works on Block Island is so busy they can’t think straight,” MacMullen said.
But the significance that Block Island, with just 1,000 year-round residents the smallest town in Rhode Island, which is the smallest state in the nation, is on track to be the first community in the nation with an offshore wind farm will start to sink in once summer’s over, she believes.
“It’ll be really exciting to be the first in the nation,” she said.
Mark Emmanuelle, a town councilor who drives a cab on the island, said visitors are already asking him to take them to the best vantage point for seeing the wind farm.
“I’m excited about it,” said Emmanuelle, a resident since 1979. “Finally, we’re taking a baby step toward getting off our addiction to fossil fuels.”
The project will bring some new challenges for the council and the island, he added.
Yet to be decided are how new Internet service coming through the fiber optic cable will be managed, and how the Block Island Power Co. will convert from a power generator to a power distributor.
Decisions about maintaining one or more of the diesel generators as a backup power supply also remain.
“These are just growing pains,” he said.
One of the most positive aspects of the Deepwater project that he believes has often been overlooked is that the company’s agreement with the state calls for the turbines to be decommissioned and dismantled after 20 years.
The island, however, would keep the power cable and fiber optic connection to the mainland.
By that time, he believes, new sources of renewable energy will be available to replace what was being generated by the five turbines.
The head of the town council is Ken Lacoste, who holds the title of first warden. Owner of a bicycle and moped rental business, he said he became a supporter of the wind farm after “reading all the information from the protagonists and the supporters.”
He looks forward to lower food costs, lower household utility bills, better Internet service and the satisfaction of living on a “greener” island.
If there are harmful impacts such as lower property values for some who lose their pristine view, “I wouldn’t ignore that,” he said.
“But at some point, there’s a price to pay for progress,” he said. “Here on Block Island, we get to live on an island that’s 43 to 44 percent conservation land, and then we’re overrun with tourists for 2 1/2 months. That’s the tradeoff.”