Hundreds of residents concerned about the impact of offshore wind projects on the shores of Little Compton, Westport and other area communities flooded the Wilbur McMahon School gymnasium...
Hundreds of residents concerned about the impact of offshore wind projects on the shores of Little Compton, Westport and other area communities flooded the Wilbur McMahon School gymnasium in Little Compton Monday evening, looking for answers and insight as two large offshore wind farm plans work their way through the permitting and approval process.
The meeting was called not to discuss individual projects, but to bring area residents up to speed on the projected benefits and potential pitfalls of offshore wind power, a form of greener energy currently in use off Block Island and being considered off the coasts of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. Those Massachusetts projects are being heavily questioned locally, and Rep. Michelle McGaw (D-Dist. 71, Portsmouth, Tiverton, Little Compton) called the meeting to give residents access to experts in the field.
The Rhode Island State Committee of the New England for Offshore Wind Coalition, and a panel of professionals, discussed related matters of offshore wind including the climate crisis, turbines' impact on wildlife including whales, and its economic benefits. According to some speakers, offshore wind has the power to play a vital role in reducing harmful emissions and creating a cleaner environment, and could mean a big step in Rhode Island’s commitment to using 100 percent renewable energy by 2033.
Still, many here worry about the turbines' impact, which in one local plan would tower nearly 800 feet above the ocean's surface and would be visible from these shores. Others worry that their construction will endanger whales and other oceanic species, and others fear that electric cables running from offshore sites, up the Sakonnet River and finally to Somerset, Ma., will upset and harm local fish stocks.
Many of the panelists maintained that offshore wind turbines will barely be seen from the shores of Little Compton and Westport, and will likely provide no hindrance to scenic enjoyment. Shilo Felton, Senior Scientist at Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute, said she “would much rather be seeing turbines" than oil rigs.
Panelists said there are few better alternatives to offshore wind, especially in this region. Amber Hewett, Offshore Wind Energy Program Director at the National Wildlife Federation, said that for the Ocean State, offshore power is a vital part of the solution to the energy crisis.
“Yes, we need all [of the alternative forms of power],” she said. “We aren’t pitting them against each other –– offshore wind is just behind. It is untapped potential.”
Community involvement was a key objective of the event, several of the night’s main speakers said. And while members of the audience remained engrossed for a large percentage of the meeting, the packed crowd began to thin as the question and answer portion began.
Questions from the audience had been polled throughout the meeting via note cards which were collected by volunteers, and accumulated into broader inquiries that the panel could answer more efficiently. But some audience members said they weren't getting what they wanted — answers.
“Is this your idea of community involvement?" one asked. "Asking for questions but keeping the mic the whole time?”
Rep. McGaw attempted to placate the woman, but she continued to accuse the meeting’s officiators of being too afraid of the public’s opinion, before storming out of the gym.
“Baloney!” she said as she got up and left.
Others were quick to follow, though several dozen remained, and posed follow-ups to questions about economical and wildlife factors. Many audience inquiries acknowledged the fact that numerous offshore wind project developers have promised the creation of many jobs, and panelist Mike Roles, with Climate Jobs RI, assured that it is his priority to make those promises come true.
“Our number one goal is to hold developers accountable,” he said. “I’m all about holding them accountable and I’m all for the workers.”
Bob Kenney, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island, assured the audience that the operational sounds of the wind turbines would be a mere “annoyance” to whales, likening it to avoiding the boom of loudspeakers at a rock concert. He also explained that many of the common misconceptions about animal endangerment are largely untrue, claiming that the use of certain words is “scare tactics.”
Captain Dave Monti, charter captain and Vice Chairman of the RI Marine Fisheries Council, supported the affirmation and cited the abundance of fish reported before, during, and after the construction of the Block Island Wind Farm.
“[The disruption] is only temporary.”