Block Island Trip Report

The following summary of the recent trip to Block Island, Rhode Island was written by Frederick Faller, 4/3/2017.

On March 28-30, 2017, A number of persons gathered for a trip to visit the Block Island Wind farm, located about 3 miles southeast of Block Island Rhode Island. The trip was sponsored by Maine Aqua Ventus, with the idea to afford anyone associated with Monhegan an opportunity to see the five turbine installation. Five people from the Island opted to attend. I went along as a member of the Community Benefits Committee. Several attendees came from the Island Institute and they brought a videographer to record the events and conversations. We were also delighted to be joined by representatives from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard who are studying the options to do offshore wind to sustain their communities. Rounded out with a couple engineers related to MAV’s work on the turbines and we had quite a group.

The thoughts offered below are collated and organized in a “best effort” to represent what took place and what I took away from the time on Block Island. They do not represent any organization and hopefully do not reflect a bias toward the decision that is confronting the Monhegan community. I hope they are taken in the best light and help seekers to better understand issues related to offshore wind.

We were kindly housed together on Block Island by a member of the community who had a house we could mostly all fit in. A few of us stayed in one of the local hotels.

We arrived in the rain, with a low cloud cover. As we approached the island, we could see about half of the turbines below the clouds. On arrival we went directly to the Southeast Light promontory where we were able to view the turbines under the clouds. It was cold, rainy and generally not a good time to stay and make much of the observation.

The Five turbines are ground mounted to the sea floor in about 90 feet of water, about half a mile apart, sweeping in a gentle arc as they hover just inside the three mile arc around the island to stay in RI state waters. They are the same turbines that are proposed for the test site south of Monhegan and the distance makes them representative of what we will actually see from Monhegan, with a different platform of course.

The Visuals …

After a meal and evening together at our accommodations, we went to see the turbines again in the morning. The clouds had lifted and the rain had stopped so we were able to see the full stature of the turbines. I was a bit surprised at how visible they were. I had made calculations that a 600 foot structure, 3 miles away would be about one inch tall if viewed from 22 inches away. A simple test is to put one’s thumb and forefinger about one inch apart and hold it out at arm’s length. They certainly looked bigger than that when I gazed at them, but I did the test and sure enough, they fit within the one inch finger space! I took down my hand only to discover that they certainly looked bigger with my hand gone.

After reflecting on this, I realized that this is a similar phenomenon to the illusion that the moon looks much larger when it is just above the horizon. This is a well documented illusion that has actually been studied quite a bit. You can find a good description of it here. 

The result is that in spite of the calculations, our eyes were drawn to turbines and they looked bigger in reality than most of us had assumed. Below is a picture that I took of the turbines. It’s very difficult to compare a photograph to the actual presence the turbines create when you are THERE. I have come to the conclusion that any photograph cannot properly represent what you see in this case. I am sure that if I had taken the same photo with a telephoto lens, I could have made the turbines monstrously huge.

 Suffice it to say, they were very visible and could be seen from many places on the island because of their shear size. I am making no judgment on whether they were offensive. That is in the eye of each individual beholder. But I do caution making judgments about what you will see on Monhegan from photographs.

My take-away from all this is that unless you have “been there, seen that”, any perception you have about what you will actually see if the turbines make it to Monhegan waters is wrong. Every picture is a poor representation. Any simulation is inadequate. It was disappointing that more persons from Monhegan did not make the effort to come and see this in person.

About Power …

After visiting the turbine site from Southeast Light, we went to the Block Island Power company and met with the power commissioner there. He is relatively new to Block Island because of some of the changes that are happening related to the wind farm and the purchasing of the Power Company there by the Block Island Municipality. We toured the power generation facility. It’s much bigger than Monhegan’s, of course. Block Island has a winter population of about a thousand that swells to about ten thousand in the summer, making it about thirty times larger than Monhegan. It takes four large diesel generators to supply the summer population and the power plant looks more like the big substations that we see on the mainland.

Last summer, they had a failure of one of the generators that resulted in a fire that took out another one and burned the housing structure to the ground. Emergency equipment had to be rushed in from the mainland in a very critical and challenging situation. The island was without power for 24 hours and then there were rolling blackouts until they could stabilize the situation. This highlights the vulnerability of stand alone power grids and was a point of much discussion by the power company in finally being connected to the mainland grid and the security that it brings to the island.

There were many details that were shared, but I will focus on a few highlights that stuck out to me:

  1. Block Island burns about a million (yes million) gallons of diesel fuel each year to sustain its power grid. This means transport on the ferry and storage on the island, large amounts of greenhouse gases and related air pollution.
  1. When asked about the turbine noise there were several pertinent observations: (Since we we not able to hear the turbines actually operating, these comments are anecdotal, but of interest none-the-less)
  1. The commissioner observed that no one had complained about the noise of the turbines.
  2. The only comments about noise were from people who commented how quiet the island got when the four generators (the size of garbage trucks) that supply power were shut off when the turbines were operating. The islanders were delighted.
  3. The commissioner had come from northern Vermont where, working in the energy cooperative there, he had overseen the installation of two large ridge based wind farms. He commented that when the turbines get iced up in the winter, they actually do make a lot more noise.
  4. He also pointed out that each generation of turbines is building on the success of and overcoming the short comings of the last generation. The turbines off BI are state of the art. New blade designs that flex in subtle wind shifts crack and shed the ice more efficiently and new coating technologies that are under continual development, also contribute to minimize icing. Through the winter while the turbines off BI were being tested, he had not seen this icing problem they had had in Vermont.
  1. There were lengthy discussions about whether to keep the BI power plant after the turbines came online. The decision was to maintain the plant for BI emergency purposes only, and not to try to be a supplier back to the mainland for mainland emergencies. The decision was complicated but that is where they landed for a number of reasons, which I did not fully understand or want to bore you with here.
  1. The BI connection is very similar to that which is being proposed for Monhegan – a cable from the turbines to the island, a junction on the island with a cable taking off to the mainland. BI power district taps into this junction and siphons off the power that is needed to run the island.
  1. The BI cable also includes fiber optics. One of the things the plant lamented, that was echoed by all the other conversations we had, was that nothing was done to build out the fiber to the rest of the island as part of the installation project. So BI has 8 high speed fibers that just end where the cable comes on shore. More on this later.
  1. Below are a couple pictures of the BI Power facility. The first picture shows the generator building to the right (green) with the second generator platform without its building, that was destroyed in the fire. The second picture is the facility where the power comes up for distribution to the island. Because BI has telephone poles, the power distribution leaving the site is much more like a lot of the land based systems and it is large to meet the demands of the significantly larger island population.

On Tourism …

After our discussion with the Power Company folks, we moved to the town hall where we engaged with the woman who heads the Block Island tourism effort. We talked for about 45 minutes. Here are the take-aways:

  1. Block Island did no baseline study prior to the installation of the turbines, so there is no baseline data on attitudes and facts.
  2. It was estimated (this is anecdotal) that about 60% of the residents were in favor of the turbines and 40% opposed.
  3. The arguments and sentiments were very similar to those in the Monhegan community (although the ratio of proponents/opposition is not similar)
  4. There is a plan to study attitudes now that the installation is up and running. 2017 will be the first summer that they are in full operation and will provide an opportunity for much feedback..
  5. The tourism department is determined to make the most of the situation. They are advertizing the first offshore wind project in the US and appealing to people to come and see it as a destination. They are organizing tours and information to assist in this campaign.

The project on Block Island is similar to that on Monhegan in that the state of Rhode Island decided, without input from Block Island residents that the wind farm was going there. Originally it was for 150 turbines, but was scaled back over time. Block Island did have a choice about the cable, which they opted to take, obviously, but it was not without a lot of politicking and intra-island friction and attitudes. There seem to still be those who are angry, a few who said they would not come back, others who hale the project as progress and an opportunity to participate in the world’s progress toward a cleaner future. Many are waiting to see what will happen. Others are seeking to capitalize on the presence of the turbines with tour boats and fishing around the turbines that have become “artificial reefs” that have attracted unexpectedly large numbers of sport fishermen. More on that later.

In the end the island seems divided, yet resigned and is now moving forward to make the most of the change that was handed to them.

Politics, Politics …

We had lunch at the town hall with the first warden (head of the town government) and one of the local residents. The discussion centered around the politics of the project and how they worked through the issues. We were joined  by representatives from power grids on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. As was stated above, it was the state legislature of Rhode Island that made the decision. It is part of the initiative  for the state to achieve certain target levels of green energy for certain milestones. Objections were raised in the legislature over the decision. Many of the same feelings, fears, anger and resentment were leveled at the legislature that we are seeing on the bill submitted to the Maine State Legislature to Protect Monhegan. There were many onshore meetings, requiring that islanders travel to the mainland and often stay over night to attend them. There are many parallels to the Monhegan project proposals.

In the end, Block Island voted to participate and now has a cable to the mainland whence they will get all of their power, except in emergencies.

Notably, cable to the mainland has been bought by National Grid who will be maintaining it. This is different from the MAV project where CMP has flatly refused to this point to have anything to do with it.

The discussion also explored the issue of the town not having negotiated for build out of the fiber optics, which they now lament. The current proposal to build out this fiber network with fiber to each house is about eight million dollars, something the town will have to vote on now and find a way to fund, which could have been negotiated into the community benefits agreement. They suggested that we learn from their oversight and press for some form of buildout in the Monhegan benefits committee.

At this point, the decision is made and Block Island has turbines. How the politics will shake out, how many people will come or not come as a result of the installation is not clear, but the town is determined to make the most of it.

It was interesting to hear the voices of those from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. With the unravelling of the Cape Wind project, both Islands have initiatives to build large wind farms south of the Islands. It seems, from the discussion, that because the initiative is being taken by the residents to solve their energy challenges, that they have broad based community support. It makes me wonder how much of the frustration about the Monhegan project is because of the “not initiated here” attitude to which we are all prone, but it also helps that the turbines will be fifteen miles away in the large US designated areas south of the islands.

We were also treated to an exhibit of a piece of the cable, cross-sectioned to show what it looked like. I took this picture to show what a modern under-sea cable might be like. The cable to the MAV project will be similar, though possibly smaller since there are only two turbines.

The cable runs up from Block Island toward Point Judith, RI, where it comes ashore on a state owned beach. An interesting story that several people shared was that the cable was slated to come ashore on a beach owned by the town of Narragansett. Narragansett was offered $5 million to land the cable there and they refused. Deepwater wind moved the access just a mile up the coast to the state own beach and Narragansett got nothing. With the cable landfall buried six feet in the sand, two of three tidal cycles almost completely obliterates any trace from the beach.

A Visit to the Turbines

After lunch on Wednesday, we were treated to a visit to the turbine site itself on a boat about the size of the Elizabeth Ann or the Hardy boat that both serve Monhegan. We left the Old Harbor about three o’clock in the afternoon and headed straight out to the site. Many of us were disappointed that the turbines were not turning because they were working on the cable and they shut the turbines down for any such work. We were eager to see and hear them up close, but that did not diminish the awe of what we did see.

It is impossible to describe the sense of size. For the same reason that I express about the turbines size from the bluffs south of the island, being close to them with no man related reference to their size was deceptive. They did not seem quite as big as they should have. In the picture below, the deck at the bottom of the tower is about 70 feet above the water, but there is now way to sense that, even on the boat in real life.

On the back of the nacelle (the place where the rotor generated the electricity), is a platform where a helicopter can drop a person in an emergency. I don’t know exactly how high the fence is around it, as seen in the picture below, but with a bit of imagination, you might be able to comprehend the size of these things. We found out later that the blades are big enough that a person can walk upright inside them for some distance out from the hub. You will have to work this through in you head to imagine what you are looking at.The overall height from the water to the top tip of one of the blades is about 3/4 of the height of the Hancock tower in Boston.

On the boat with us were several town officials and the fellow who oversees the daily operations of the project. He was very knowledgeable about all things Block Island Wind Farm and told us many things. Here are a few highlights:

  1. Apparently, the “artificial reefs” caused by the turbine foundations attract large quantities of sea life, and as a result a large number of recreational fishermen, who, detecting the availability of fish, swarm to them. There were times in the deploying of the turbines that there were so many of them that they could not work safely to assemble the turbine towers and rotors (imagine a guys and his buddies wanting to fish so badly that they did not realize the danger of a 200 ton Nacelle generator hovering over their heads from a crane)
  2. The towers are nearly 400 feet high and have an elevator inside them that takes about 90 seconds to go to the top. He has climbed the alternative ladder – once!
  3. The foundations do have refuge places where if someone needed to, they could seek shelter on them until help arrived (boating accident)
  4. The tides in the area where the turbines are located are 2.5 – 3.0 feet.
  5. Deep Water Wind has a special boat made specifically for transporting crew and other workers to the turbine sites.

We circled out around all five of the turbines and took lots of pictures. It was extraordinary to see the technology and engineering of the project.

Lights Lights …

After another evening at the farm with dinner and many discussion about what we had seen and felt, we headed out to see what the lights looked like on the top of these machines. I must say that I was dismayed by the brightness of the lights they chose for the tops of these things. I have seen many radio/television towers and tall buildings, but have never seen lights that bright. They were bright red, alternating on and off about at about 10 second intervals and they were stunningly intrusive. Of all the changes that should be lobbied for strenuously in the design of the MAV turbines, dealing with this issue should be at the top of the list in my opinion. I personally believe that something can be, and has to be, adjusted here.

There are several things of note:

  1. Block Island has a small active airport. I can imagine that with a local airport that such brightness might be important.
  2. These turbines are located such that a plane flying from Block Island to Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket could have to navigate around them. Perhaps this is why the lights are so bright.
  3. What is interesting is that the lights are NOT on the tips of the blades. Small plane thinking they could fly above these lights would be in for quite a deadly surprise. I am not sure I understand how that all works from a regulatory point of view, but it seems very strange.

The ship lights on the decks of the turbines were more modest. One could see them, but they were not very intrusive.

Testing the Technology

On Thursday morning, we got up early for the trip home. On the ferry we all got together to compare notes and talk about take-aways from the trip. Most of these I have addressed above.

As we passed through Boston, we were able to tour the facility down on the waterfront that has been built to test turbine blades. We were not allowed to take any pictures and had to practically sign our lives away to get in, but it was an impressive thing to be able to be up close to the huge blades on these new turbines. We saw several blades under test and videos of destructive testing of these blades. The facility can test blades up to 90 meters long (a football field) The ones they were testing that day were about 70 meters, as I recall.

The test engineer pointed out that the power collected by the turbine goes up as the 4th power of the blade length, so the quest is on for longer and longer blades, the theoretical limit being the point at which the tip of the blade begins to exceed the speed of sound!

I was impressed by how rapidly this field is expanding. Wind power is here and its development is in full swing with many projects already in the works and more on the drawing boards. To hear the engineers at the facility talk about the future of wind power – they were all in.

Omissions …

There were many private discussion over the course of three days together that took place, but there were a number of discussions that some may ask about the were not directly part of the conversation that I could remember:

We did not talk about the effect on wildlife other than mentioning of the various studies on birds and sea mammals that were required for the project. Interestingly, the woman whose house we were staying in, who was the First Warden during all the politicking for the turbines and a fair proponent of the project, is also one of the foremost voices on the island for ecological training and leads the group who does bird banding in the spring and fall as birds come and go on Block Island. She seemed to have little concern for the birds and the turbines. We did not discuss this directly as I recall, but she seemed very comfortable with their presence.

There was not a lot of discussion on the effects on the fishery, but that is partly because there is little fishery left on Block Island. They could only name one lobsterman. Most of the commercial fishery is out of New Bedford and other ports on the mainland. The cable is buried six feet under the sea bed, so it is not a concern even for draggers, scallopers and lobstermen, but we did not get much feedback on what the mainlander fishermen thought about all this.

Frederick Faller, 4/3/2017