Developers agree to fewer turbines in proposed offshore wind farm

Source: By Alex Kuffner, The Providence Journal • Posted: Wednesday, May 26, 2021

PROVIDENCE — The developers of the South Fork Wind Farm are set to reduce the number of turbines from 15 to 12 in response to a request from Rhode Island coastal regulators who want to minimize disruption to the marine environment and the state’s fishing industry.

At a meeting of the state Coastal Resources Management Council on Tuesday, Ørsted, the Denmark-based offshore wind company, and its partner Eversource, a regional electric utility, will formally agree to use more powerful turbines that would allow them to cut down on the number  needed while still maintaining the same, approximately 132-megawatt capacity of the wind farm.

The companies will also agree to set up a $12-million fund to compensate fishermen for impacts on access to the project area in Rhode Island Sound. The agreement is “grounded in world-class fisheries analysis,” a spokeswoman for the project said in a statement.

“And it’s one we make in the spirit of negotiations to move this first Ørsted-Eversource project forward,” said Meaghan Wims.

The change in configuration follows a warning from council staff that they would recommend denying a key approval to the project that would supply power to Long Island if the developers failed to reduce the number of turbines.

Staff said the installation of fewer turbines, combined with the compensation fund for fishermen, would mitigate the negative impacts of the wind farm and, in their opinion, bring it into compliance with Rhode Island coastal policies.

The staff recommendation and the developers’ response come as the council prepares to decide whether to certify that the wind farm abides by the state’s Ocean Special Area Management Plan, a document ratified by the federal government that governs energy development in waters off Rhode Island.

Although the wind farm is proposed in federal waters and its most important permit must come from an arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior, it cannot go forward without certification from the Rhode Island coastal council.

The recommendation from council staff called on Ørsted and Eversource to use 12-megawatt turbines that would allow them to reduce the number of machines to 11. As of late Monday, it was unclear how the agency would respond to the developers’  agreeing to use 12 turbines. Council spokeswoman Laura Dwyer said the agency had “nothing new to add other than what’s already in the staff report.”

The council was set to consider the consistency certification for the wind farm a month ago, but Gov. Dan McKee asked for a delay in proceedings to give the developers more time to come up with a mitigation package.

As only the second major offshore wind farm to enter the federal regulatory process – after the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project that won approval earlier this month – the South Fork proposal is being closely watched. It comes amid larger concerns about the coexistence of offshore wind farms and the fishing industry.

Talks over the South Fork project have been particularly sensitive because of its proposed location, on Cox Ledge. The area, an underwater glacial moraine where the rocky terrain is used as nursery habit by a range of fish species, is considered some of the most valuable marine habitat off Rhode Island. It is one of the few areas in southern New England that still supports Atlantic cod in all its life stages.

That makes it important to a range of fishermen, from recreational anglers who catch sharks and tuna to lobstermen who set traps, to trawlers that tow nets through its waters. While scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution hired by the developers estimate losses from the wind farm to be as low as $15 million, an economist working with the council’s Fishermen’s Advisory Board says they could be as high as $40 million.

Those losses – which could amount to 50% to 80% of landings in the project area – would come from a complete shutdown of fishing in the area during construction and operation, as well as from reduced access while the turbines are in operation.

As for environmental effects, one source would come from driving piles into the ocean bottom, which is necessary to secure the foundations for the turbines. Noise from piledriving is expected to kill fish, eggs and larvae within a 10-acre area around each pile, according to council staff. It could also affect fish behavior eight miles further away.

Other impacts to habitat would come from burying the cable and altering the physical environment by adding foundations that would act as artificial reefs and could change the species composition in the area.

“The location of the [South Fork] project on Cox Ledge, an area known for its biological diversity, is in our view one of the worst possible locations within Rhode Island Sound for this project,” council staff wrote.