The growing push for wind power in Rhode Island is creating friction between wind developers and an unlikely group of critics: environmentalists.
The first sign of trouble came with environmentalists' objections to plans for a wind turbine at Black Point, a stretch of Narragansett land the state purchased in 1989 with open-space bond money.
The immediate concern: the state should not allow energy production on a site acquired for preservation purposes. But more broadly, environmentalists argued, there is a process problem — there are no comprehensive criteria for siting wind turbines and there is not enough opportunity for public participation in the decision-making process.
Last month, the state's Department of Environmental Management (DEM) selected Chevron Energy Systems to build wind turbines on two state-owned and two town-owned sites in Narragansett, dropping the Black Point location from the project at the last minute.
But state officials said the environmentalists' concerns, however valid, were not behind the decision. They cited other reasons, including the strength of the wind at Black Point and the suitability of the site for erecting turbines. The greens' larger concerns remained.
That set the stage for a meeting, earlier this month, of the Environment Council of Rhode Island (ECRI), a coalition of the state's environmental groups. There, wind advocates debated a resolution that stated renewable energy projects should not be given "a free pass" on public lands. Among the chief critics of the resolution, eventually sent to a sub-committee for a rewrite: representatives of the wind industry.
"This is a huge step backwards for wind development," said Fred Unger, president of the Heartwood Group, Inc. Another council member, Erich Stephens, a manager for OffshoreMW, a wind developer with German roots, also objected. Under existing rules, wind turbines already need a town building permit and a zoning variance due to their height, he noted.
"The existing zoning process is going to prevent an inappropriate siting of a wind turbine," he added in an interview, arguing that if anything, permitting should be made easier.
But Tricia Jedele, director of the Conservation Law Foundation Rhode Island Advocacy Center, suggested the state is better suited than individual towns to regulate a turbine's maximum height, impact on scenic views, and setbacks from residential areas. And the state's rules, she suggested, must be clear and uniform. "We don't have any standard in place," she told the council, "to evaluate whether wind is appropriate [to a particular spot]."
On January 4, Jedele and leaders of Save The Bay, the Rhode Island Land Trust Council and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island wrote DEM insisting that state law requires a public process for changing uses of land acquired for open space.
Such a process should be put in place before the four turbines are built in Narragansett, they wrote. "Our obligation is not to simply develop renewable energy," the letter states, "but to do it well and in consideration of all relevant factors."
In a statement, DEM spokesperson Gail Mastrati said the agency does not yet have a response to the Conservation Law Foundation's legal arguments, but defended the Chevron selection process as "transparent and open" and said that preservation of natural resources may include their use for renewable energy projects. In addition, Mastrati noted that DEM will hold a hearing on the project January 25 at 6 pm at Narragansett Town Hall.