New Wave of Research to Focus on Social Dimensions of American Offshore Wind Energy

The first wind farm in the nation is now operational off the coast of Block Island. This five-turbine project, intended to launch hundreds of turbines elsewhere along the coast, is a milestone for an emerging offshore renewable energy industry in the United States. If offshore wind farms are to be successful, however, a better understanding of the associated social and economic benefits and challenges is needed to enable communities to make more informed decisions.

Over 40 scientists, government officials, stakeholders, and consultants gathered at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography for the 15th annual Baird Sea Grant Science Symposium last October to develop a national research agenda looking at the social dimensions of offshore wind energy development in the United States.

“We hope to leave this meeting with directional information that will help guide our grant priorities during our next round of grant applications,” said Rhode Island Sea Grant Director Dennis Nixon at the meeting, explaining that the outcome of the discussion would help develop Sea Grant’s research focus. “The idea is to help ocean wind power flourish for the benefit of Rhode Islanders and the nation.”

The nation’s first offshore wind farm off Block Island paves the way for an emerging industry.

While Rhode Island has already established a wind farm in its state waters, other states are either contemplating offshore wind energy or are in the early stages of planning – highlighting the need for research focused on the value of comparing different planning and permitting processes, both within the U.S. and Europe. Panelists discussed the importance of building relationships and trust with various stakeholders impacted by development, and exploring the factors that contribute to stakeholder support for or opposition to a project in order to better understand concerns and values aligned with or opposed to offshore wind energy development.

“I felt the key was the relationship and direct line of communication we had with the developer. This direct communication was important; it did not go through [fisheries] managers with a chance of things being misinterpreted,” said Capt. Rick Bellavance, president of the Rhode Island Party & Charter Boat Association and the initial fisheries liaison for the Block Island wind farm developer Deepwater Wind.

“We learned early that building trust between the fishing community, government, and the developer was key,” said Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal  Resources Management Council, explaining the process of developing the Ocean Special Area Management Plan that helped Deepwater Wind launch the Block Island Wind Farm. “Without this trust, fishermen could have easily sidetracked the project. With careful attention to communication and building a trusting environment, the Block Island project went through permitting in about a year. We have some other coastal projects that have been in permitting and/or litigation for nearly 20 years.”

Bellavance and Fugate were among the various panelists, which included scientists specializing in wind energy and social issues from the University of Rhode Island, the University of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Rutgers University, Clark University, the University of Delaware (and its Center for Carbon-free Power Integration) and the University of Arizona, to discuss topics that needed further study.

Initial research areas recommended by the group included examining how various communication and engagement strategies can employ different outcomes that minimize conflict and accurately reflect stakeholder values and concerns. This includes understanding stakeholder participation, the scale of planning and engagement, attitudes and perceptions about offshore wind development, and cultural ties and community sense of place.

Additional research areas identified focused on understanding the socioeconomic impacts of offshore wind development on areas such as coastal real estate, tourism, recreation and fisheries, as well as a cost/benefit analysis of wind energy compared to other forms of energy generation, technology advancement, and related employment.

“Due to wind power and ocean wind farms, the cost of electricity in Denmark is very cheap. They have so much surplus electricity that they have been exporting quite a bit of it to other countries,” said Bonnie Ram, associate director of the Center for Carbon-free Power Integration at the University of Delaware, who spent two years in Denmark studying wind power.

Although Block Island has yet to see the monetary benefits of the wind farm as it is in its infancy and because oil prices have dropped in the last several years, it is expected to supply 90 percent of the island’s electrical needs with more going back to the grid.

More research has been identified to monitor the socioeconomic effects of the wind farm moving forward, establishing baseline data that will enable future monitoring of other proposed offshore wind sites in the Northeast. This includes, more specifically, assessing ocean use changes (e.g. fishing, recreational boating), documenting the economic and social value of these uses, and evaluating the cultural and historic aspects of these areas.

“You can see them [from] everywhere on the island,” said Jessica Willi, executive director of the Block Island Tourism Council, expressing that while the diesel generator on the island was responsible for the exorbitant electricity costs for the community, the potential aesthetic issues, along with light and noise pollution, may negatively impact tourism.

“If not wind, what? Wind has all these great benefits. No long-term waste, no emissions, but you can’t make it invisible…,” said Dr. Mike Pasqualetti, a renewable energy expert from Arizona State University. “Because wind energy is site specific, you need to accept that it’s going to be intrusive in some locations. You’ve got to accept the fact that you are responsible for your own demand…If you’re going to use electricity, this is the least offensive way in terms of the whole environment costs.”

But by better understanding the short-term and long-term outputs (both economic and social) of various energy forms, planners and decision-makers can more effectively communicate the costs of energy and better engage communities regarding prospective renewable energy projects.

The possible research directions identified during the symposium are preliminary, said Tiffany Smythe, extension specialist at Rhode Island Sea Grant and the Coastal Resources Center, who helped organize and facilitate the symposium. “We will be reporting  Symposium input in a way that that can inform research priorities for the next round of Rhode Island Sea Grant funding… and it will serve as stimuli for social scientists wanting to study ocean wind power and its effect on communities.”

Rhode Island Sea Grant is currently accepting research pre-proposals until February 17, 2017, for projects up to two years that focus on establishing baselines for improved understanding of socio-economic impacts of the Block Island wind farm regarding effects to local tourism, recreational and commercial fishing, and coastal-dependent businesses.

For more information, visit http://seagrant.gso.uri.edu/research/

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