In a search for non-polluting sources of
energy, the North American states of Rhode Island and New England are embarking
on projects to set up offshore wind farms, up to 30 miles off the East Coast of
the United States. The move comes at a time when President Obama has just
cleared exploration offshore of the American coast.
The wind energy project has definite
benefits, but critical to its implementation will be ensuring that the project
is cleared from an environmental as well as economic perspective, and is in the
greater public good.
Rhode Island has put potential sites under
a three year scientific study, in order to study bird migration patterns,
wildlife habitats, fish distribution and areas of cultural importance to Native
American Indian tribes. Its goal has been to build a consensus and avoid the
kind of conflict that the neighbouring state is facing, with business
interests, coastal tribes and resident homeowners opposing the developer, Cape
Wind and supporters of the alternative energy movement.
Rhode Island has proposed two potential
offshore sites — a $200 million eight-turbine project off Block Island, and a
far bigger $1.5 billion farm in the eastern Rhode Island Sound — and has
selected a preferred developer, Deepwater Wind. It has also managed to sign a
power purchase agreement with a utility company to buy the farm’s output.
Delaware, Maine, New Jersey, New York and Virginia are also eager to secure
permits and to lease blocks from the federal government in waters beyond the
three-mile limit of state control. Some environmentalists are concerned that
the offshore competition in the Northeast could trump the protection of fish
and bird populations, affecting the ecology of the regions.
While environmental groups have generally praised Rhode Island’s planning as
thorough, some question why state officials homed in on two sites before the
three-year study was completed. Mr. Fugate, the chief administrator of the
Rhode Island project and the director of the state’s Coastal Resources
Management Council has emphasized that the sites are tentative and could be
vetoed if the research indicates that they have big drawbacks. Adjustments have
been made as the research has progressed, he said.
With considerable economic stakes, the first offshore wind farm could
generate as much as 1.3 million megawatt hours of power in a year, which would
light up 125,000 homes and create over 600 jobs. In fact, the competition is so
high that researchers involved with the project have been asked to keep some of
the data secret.
The project has the potential to make or break the attempt to harness
offshore wind power as a source of alternative energy, but the ecological and
economic concerns driving the objective need to be addressed, in order to make
it a pathbreaker for other projects to follow.