Economy
5:57 pm
Thu September 8, 2011

Offshore wind divides Block Island

PROVIDENCE, RI – Barbara MacMullan never imagined the construction of five offshore wind turbines would divide a place known for its conservation. The Block Island resident thought the wind farm was no brainer. It's green. It's clean. And it could end the island's dependence on diesel powered energy.

But Barbara MacMullan thought wrong.

On a near perfect morning, MacMullan stands at the ferry dock in a tank top and white shorts. The flip-flops on her feet disguise her day job as the vice-president for Washington Trust. MacMullan is a noted supporter of the wind energy project. But she says you can't understand energy issues on the island until you comprehend the current energy source.

What is this place? I ask.

"This is Block Island Power Company," she says. "This is the only power company on the island. This is the only source of electricity for the island. It's diesel. It's solely run on diesel fuel. They bring over about a million gallons of diesel fuel a year. It all comes over the ferry on big tanker trucks."

MacMullan says the diesel generators run 24-hours a day during the summer. She says the demand stresses the machines, not to mention Block Islander's wallets. Energy on the island costs more than double the price of energy on the mainland.

"It's very hard to supply power to a small island like this, especially given the big swings in population and use," she says. "I think that's why people see deepwater as such a benefit to the island, because it will allow us to displace this with wind and mainland pricing."

The Deepwater plan. This is how it works:

In 2013 or 2014, construction of 5 offshore wind turbines should begin 3-miles off the coast of Block Island. They'll be big, taller than the Superman building in downtown Providence. And for Block Islanders the project contains three main promises: The first promise would provide a clean energy source to power all their needs. The second promise would connect the island to the grid for the first time in its history. And the third promise would lower electricity rates.

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MacMullan owns a small saltbox home atop a hill, and operates her own private windmill. She lives off the grid and won't receive any energy from the Deepwater Plan. But that doesn't impact her support. From her back porch she has a view of the Atlantic that won't be impacted by the wind farm.

"You know, the economics of it are the economics of it. How you feel to having the windmills in your view is a personal reaction. I wouldn't mind if they put them on this side of the island. I think they're a symbol of progress. I think they're a symbol of trying to move forward as a community whether its our little community or a big community to find ways to solve our energy that we face."

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One resident who definitely does not want her view to change is Rosemarie Ives. She's a vocal opponent to the project. And she lives on the south end of the Island, atop the Mohegan Bluffs. Her home rests about 125 feet above the shoreline. From her back porch, you feel as though you can see the curvature of the globe. It's a view that hasn't changed for thousands of years. And it's a view that Ives is still fighting to keep free of turbines, even though the project continues to move forward.

"I don't believe that the fat lady has sung yet," says Ives. "I believe that during the construction there will be some people to come and look at it. But they will leave. They will take ten seconds they will take ten minutes and they'll look at it and they'll go home to wherever they live. They will not have the same experience that our family and other families experienced about.. 'Ahhhh! Block Island! I've got to come back!'"

At times, Ives pounds the picnic table to emphasize her points. She retired to Block Island after serving multiple terms as the mayor of Redmond, Washington. But a political career still didn't prepare her for how this public project came to be in Rhode Island.

"I am a student and an administrator of public policy and public information," she says. "And if I hadn't experience government in Rhode Island around this project... If I hadn't experienced it myself I wouldn't believe it."

Ives echoes some of the concerns raised by the Conservation Law Foundation. The New England based environmental group questioned a legislative process that they say benefited just two companies: Deepwater Wind and National Grid. But their Director of Advocacy Tricia Jedele says they were only opposed to the process. Her foundation supports offshore wind and is against climate change. That's why they're happy to see the wind farm go up near Rosemarie Ives' home.

But Ives remains steadfast in her opposition. She doubts efficacy of wind energy. But you can tell it's more personal than that. She leads me off her porch and down toward the edge of the bluffs. We follow a small, winding dirt pathway through a forest of bayberry trees. The pathway opens up to a small overlook. In the center sits a private bench for two. And beyond that is a view of the Atlantic Ocean. The space is so nice you'd think it's fake.

"How could you look out here and think those turbines would be graceful or anything else? There's this conflict of man-made and nature-made. And it's just not the right place."

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NOTE: I feel the need to share something that happened during the course of reporting this story.

Here it is: After interviewing MacMullan at her house, she was kind enough to drop me off at my next scheduled interview with Ives. But when we reached the address, MacMullan wouldn't pull-into the driveway. She said she didn't want Ives to see her. So I had her let let me out on the side of the main road. And later, when Ives asked how I reached her home, I told her who dropped me off. Her eyes bulged and she yelled toward her husband, "Uh-oh, Barbara MacMullan knows where we live."

In that little instance, one could see just how much the offshore wind farm is dividing Block Island.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@wrni.org.