Portsmouth Town Council approves host agreement with SouthCoast Wind

A MAP depicting the two cable burial routes SouthCoast Wind Energy is considering for running cables under the town of Portsmouth. /COURTESY SOUTHCOAST WIND ENERGY VIA THE RHODE ISLAND CURRENT

Faced with receiving $23 million or nothing, the Portsmouth Town Council begrudgingly approved an agreement that allows a Massachusetts offshore wind farm developer access to town property under which to bury power cables.

The 18-page host community agreement, approved by a 5-1 vote of the council Tuesday, gives SouthCoast Wind Energy LLC access to town property. The easements will be used so the Massachusetts wind developer can bury 2 miles of high-voltage, underground transmission lines below town roads, meant to connect its offshore wind farm to the electric grid in nearby Brayton Point. In exchange for use of town land, the developer will pay $23.2 million in host fees and taxes, to Portsmouth over the next 33 years.

Councilman David Gleason cast the sole vote in opposition.

The council’s decision came after a nearly four-hour public hearing at Portsmouth High School, marked by impassioned testimony and pointed questions from community residents. Some criticized the lack of protections for the town in the agreement, as well as murkiness surrounding the exact route of the cable burial plan – for which there are two options. Others focused their opposition on how the offshore wind farm as a whole will upset the delicate ocean ecosystem so critical to fishermen’s livelihoods. Still others lobbed accusations based on self-described evidence that ties the company ownership to China, or insisted climate change was a “hoax.”

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Ultimately, the council members felt their hands were tied, explaining that without the agreement, the project could still happen, but without any legal protections or financial benefits to the town.

“We really don’t have jurisdiction over whether the project moves forward or not,” Councilwoman Daniela Abbott said. “Our objective is, let’s make sure there are benefits to Portsmouth. This is one very solid way of getting those benefits.”

Councilman Keith Hamilton put it more bluntly.

“My concern is, if we say no, we get nothing done and they still put it down,” he said.

Gleason disagreed, framing the agreement as an attempt to “gag” the town with no guarantees the money promised would actually be handed over.

The town council’s authority is limited to the 2 miles of underground cables that would connect from the Sakonnet River at Island Park, running northwest up Boyd’s Lane and east along Anthony Road before exiting Mount Hope Bay – either out of Roger Williams University property or Montaup Country Club.

The project itself, a 149-turbine array proposed for federal waters 60 miles south of the state coastline, is governed largely by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, though Rhode Island agencies also have a say over the portion of underwater transmission lines snaking up the Sakonnet River and out Mount Hope Bay.

Both the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council and the R.I. Energy Facility Siting Board have yet to conclude their reviews of the project, with the latter opting to postpone its decision until new, financial agreements were secured between the developer and utility companies.

Opponents who spoke Tuesday also questioned why the town council couldn’t wait to make its decision later, given the uncertain future of the project without the power purchase agreements. Fueling their fire were concerns over the rapidly reached agreement, with negotiations between the company and the town only first publicized three weeks prior.

Gleason cast doubt over contract negotiations, explaining he was “in the dark” over the changes made in the three weeks of discussions.

“I could ask more questions, but I shouldn’t have to,” he said.

Resident MacKenzie Shea also urged the council to share more details on the closed-door negotiations, including what the original payment offer was compared with the final number.

“In the name of transparency, I would think you would tell us how well you did on the negotiations,” she said.

But Council President Kevin Aguiar refused to answer her question, stressing the importance of keeping legal discussions confidential.

Aguiar later had a heated exchange with resident Peter Roberts, who accused the parties behind the contract of “setting up” recent flooding on Island Park as evidence for how climate change necessitated the project. Roberts insisted the flooding was solely due to blocked storm drains, adding there had been no sea level rise in the decades he’d lived in the area.

Aguiar attempted several times to cut Roberts off during his comments, rebutting the accuracy of the statements.

Other project supporters among the crowd also sought to dismantle the opposition.

Christian Roselund, a senior policy analyst with Clean Energy Associates, characterized naysayers’ claims as “dominated by conspiracy theories and inaccuracies.”

“This is the most careful plan to lay cable that I’ve ever seen and you’re getting half a million dollars for it,” Roselund said.

Lawrence Mott, transmissions development manager for SouthCoast Wind, touted the minimal disruptions to traffic during construction and virtual lack of visual, noise or electromagnetic field exposure during operation.

Alan Shoer, an attorney with Adler, Pollock & Sheehan PC in Providence who was hired by the town to advise on the agreement, also lauded the contract as “very favorable” compared with others reached between local governments and wind developers.

As outlined, SouthCoast Energy will pay a $500,000 up-front fee to Portsmouth once the contract is signed, with another $3.8 million when construction starts. Annual payments during the 33 years of operation vary, with the first 10 years of annual payments also including a payment-in lieu-of-taxes of $125,000 a year. Assets would be fully taxed at the regular rate in subsequent years.

In total, the town will receive $23.2 million, though most of the payment is contingent upon the project going forward.

Rebecca Ullman, a spokesperson for SouthCoast Wind, issued the following statement in an email on Wednesday:

“This approval is another positive step on the path toward developing our offshore wind project which we continue to permit at the federal, state and local levels,” Ullman said. “SouthCoast Wind is committed to delivering on the promise of renewable offshore wind energy with new jobs, economic growth, and cleaner air.”

The two-phase, 2400 megawatt project is expected to be completed by the end of the decade, with cable burial beginning sometime between early 2026 until late 2029, though the actual buildout will be far shorter, according to documents submitted by the development team.

Town Councilman Charles Levesque was absent from the meeting.

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

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