CRMC approves Sakonnet River transmission line for Massachusetts wind farm

SOUTHCOAST WIND Community Liaison Coordinator Kelsey Perry speaks to residents attending an information forum at the Common Fence Point Improvement Hall in Portsmouth on Feb. 15, 2023. The project requires an underground cable to cross Portsmouth from the Sakonnet River to Mount Hope Bay. /RHODE ISLAND CURRENT / JANINE L. WEISMAN

The financial agreements anchoring a 149-turbine offshore wind farm proposed south of Rhode Island have come undone, but that hasn’t stopped state coastal regulators from reviewing – and approving – the underwater cables that would run through Rhode Island waters.

The R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council in a unanimous vote on Tuesday affirmed that the underwater transmission line planned as part of the SouthCoast Wind (formerly known as Mayflower Wind) project meets state coastal policies. The decision comes as the developer SouthCoast Wind Energy LLC seeks new power purchase agreements with Massachusetts utility companies, after reneging on its original agreements amid rising costs.

The CRMC through its Ocean Special Area Management Plan gets to weigh in on any development within 30 miles of the state coastline. In the case of offshore wind arrays, that means determining whether the projects meet state regulations and also recommending mitigation measures to help minimize losses to the fishing industry from the construction and operation of the projects.

The actual turbines planned for SouthCoast Wind fall outside the CRMC’s purview, in an area 60 miles south of the state coastline. However, 50 miles of the high-voltage, undersea electric cables connecting the turbines to the onshore electric grid are within the agency’s scope of review, snaking from the wind farm up the Sakonnet River, underneath Island Park following Boyd’s Lane in Portsmouth and out Mount Hope Bay to reach land in Somerset’s Brayton Point.

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While other regulatory agencies, including the Rhode Island Energy Facility Siting Board, opted to delay their review of the project until new financial agreements are finalized, the financial details don’t preclude the CRMC from considering the environmental and coastal impacts, said Jeffrey Willis, CRMC’s executive director.

As part of its decision, the CRMC set out a host of conditions aimed at minimizing impacts to the underwater habitat, including details of how deep and where the cables are buried. The developer has also agreed to pay $280,000 to recreational and commercial fishermen to offset the estimated losses from the cable burial and operations.

The lack of data and contracting estimates over how offshore wind will hurt the fishing industry has been a source of contention in other project reviews. Frustration with the CRMC’s perceived deference to wind developers at the expense of fishermen prompted a state-appointed panel of industry representatives to resign en masse from their posts earlier this year.

Developer comes prepared

Without the Fisherman’s Advisory Board or its attorney present Tuesday to argue against the project – or at least ask for more money – public criticism was minimal. A handful of Little Compton residents voiced concern with lack of transparency over project details, along with health and quality of life impacts.

The developer, meanwhile, came prepared with a slate of project leaders and experts who, over nearly an hour of testimony, sought to head off any concerns about environmental impacts, including to the fishing industry.

The developer is also negotiating a separate agreement with the CMRC to survey and gather more accurate data on area fishing activities, although that memorandum is still being developed and is not related to the decision Tuesday, according to Willis.

Exactly when the cable burial will commence remains unclear, with a tentative timeline submitted to the CRMC offering a wide window spanning from early 2026 until late 2029, though the actual buildout will be far shorter, according to the development team.

A separate application for a CRMC permit for the project remains under review.

Rebecca Ullman, a spokesperson for SouthCoast Wind, said in an emailed statement on Thursday that the company is preparing to respond to the coordinated offshore wind solicitations across Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut to secure new power purchase agreements for its project.

“This approval by the CRMC affirms that we are committed to working collaboratively with all stakeholders as we plan to deliver our wind energy project in time to help states meet their clean energy goals,” Ullman said.

Nancy Lavin is a staff writer for the Rhode Island Current.

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