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Rhode Island Offshore Wind Farm Marks U.S. Milestone in Energy Development

Rhode Island Offshore Wind Farm Marks U.S. Milestone in Energy Development

Rhode Island's Ocean Special Area Management Plan helps pave way for the first offshore wind farm in the United States.

By Evan Ridley, Rhode Island Sea Grant

As development of the first U.S. offshore wind farm begins in Block Island Sound, many Rhode Islanders and others are praising the role of the state's Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) in the federal regulation and permitting process. Deepwater Wind, a Providence-based developer, received permission to begin its 5-turbine project just two years after applying, a stark contrast to the offshore efforts of the nearby Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, which faltered after a 9-year struggle with permitting.

“After years of hard work, preparation, and planning, the Block Island Wind Farm is moving forward and is on track to become America’s first offshore wind farm. This innovative project puts the Ocean State at the forefront of the clean energy economy,” said R.I. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse during a tour of the offshore construction site.

Under the leadership of the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), Rhode Island Sea Grant, and the University of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Center (CRC), the Ocean SAMP was created in 2008 by scientists, regulators, and stakeholders to manage the ecological, economic, and cultural resources in 1,500 square miles of water off the coast of Rhode Island. Some areas under the plan’s jurisdiction stretch beyond the 3-mile state limit into federal territory, necessitating cooperative work with federal agencies. 

“With the Ocean SAMP, the state of Rhode Island decided that we were going to be in the driver’s seat, that we were going to tell the developer where the wind turbines should be,” said Jennifer McCann, Rhode Island Sea Grant extension director and director of U.S. Coastal Programs for CRC, in an article published in RWU Law magazine

The plan helped to determine areas where development would and would not be suitable, based not only on technical considerations but also on stakeholder input such as the location of key fishing grounds. The Ocean SAMP provided much of the critical scientific data required by Deepwater Wind to select an appropriate site for turbine construction, and the company reimbursed the state $3.2 million for that work.

The ability of the Ocean SAMP to engage all stakeholders in productive discourse has also been lauded as a tremendous benefit to the local community. Fishermen were able to request changes to the development plan that Deepwater Wind considered and ultimately adopted, an outcome highlighted in a recent video from the Ocean Conservancy that tells the story of the relationship between a lobsterman, Bill McElroy, and the CEO of Deepwater Wind, Jeff Grybowski, a friendship that is reflective of the continuous cooperation between stakeholders and development leaders. Additionally, both Grybowski and CRMC director Grover Fugate have said that the SAMP process sidestepped years of regulatory and permitting time.

“They (Rhode Island and Deepwater) showed how it could be done,” remarked U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who spoke recently with Rhode Island NPR. “A place like Block Island, which could only burn dirty diesel fuel, will now have an opportunity for clean, renewable energy.”

By the numbers: The Ocean SAMP cost $7.61 million to develop. An additional $735,000 from the R.I. Office of Energy Resources was put towards implementing the plan. Work continues on updating the document as new information becomes available.

More information on the Ocean SAMP is available online. 

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