As New Englanders await a decision in Massachusetts on a bitterly contested proposal to build the nation’s first offshore wind farm, the State of Rhode Island is forging ahead with its own project in the hope of outpacing — and upstaging — its neighbor.
Crucial to its strategy is dispelling worries that economics will trump the environment, or the broader public good.
Instead of having a private developer dominate the research on potential sites, as Massachusetts has, Rhode Island embarked on a three-year scientific study, to be completed in August, of all waters within 30 miles of its coast. It has spent more than $8 million on research into bird migration patterns, wildlife habitats, fish distribution, fishermen’s needs and areas that might be of cultural importance to Indian tribes.
Its goal has been to head off the hurdles that have been in the way of the Massachusetts project, which has pitted coastal Indian tribes, business interest and homeowners against the developer, Cape Wind, and proponents of alternative energy. Frustrated by the failure of the two sides to broker an agreement, the Obama administration’s interior secretary, Ken Salazar, has promised to determine the fate of the project on his own this month. (On Friday a federal historic panel sent Mr. Salazar its recommendation that the government reject the Cape Wind Project.)
“We took the opposite approach of what Cape Wind did,” said Grover Fugate, the chief administrator of the Rhode Island project and the director of the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council.
Still, independent of the scientific study, Rhode Island has proposed two potential offshore sites — a $200 million eight-turbine project off Block Island, and a far bigger $1.5 billion farm in the eastern Rhode Island Sound — and has selected a preferred developer, Deepwater Wind.
In February, Gov. Donald L. Carcieri went so far as to suggest that the Block Island site was “on target to become the nation’s first offshore wind farm.”
Massachusetts counters that it is much further ahead. “We’ve been through all the state permits and we’re awaiting the final permits,” Ian Bowles, the state’s secretary of energy and environment, said in a recent interview.
Rhode Island has not secured permits, but it has trumpeted what Cape Wind so far lacks: a “power purchase” agreement with a utility company to buy what a farm generates. Yet on Wednesday, the state’s utility commission rejected that pact, which involved the proposed farm off Block Island, as too costly.
So for now, Cape Wind is poised to be first, said Matt Kaplan, a wind analyst at Emerging Energy Research, a firm that tracks emerging energy markets.
“If Cape Wind makes it through the permitting process, that is a major feat that no other offshore wind project has achieved in the U.S.,” he said. “However, power purchase agreements have been hard to secure.”
Officials consider a viable project as a source of energy and jobs, but the wind wars are also driven by state pride. “There is a rivalry to be the first state to have an offshore wind project in the nation,” Mr. Kaplan said. “And there is some embarrassment on the part of Massachusetts, having taken so long with Cape Wind.”
Delaware, Maine, New Jersey, New York and Virginia are also eager to secure permits and to lease blocks from the federal government in waters beyond the three-mile limit of state control.
Some environmentalists are concerned that the offshore competition in the Northeast could trump the protection of fish and bird populations, said Jonathan Stone, the executive director of Save the Bay, an advocacy group for Narragansett Bay.
While environmental groups have generally praised Rhode Island’s planning as thorough, some question why state officials homed in on two sites before the three-year study was completed.
Mr. Fugate has emphasized that the sites are tentative and could be vetoed if the research indicates that they have big drawbacks. Adjustments have been made as the research has progressed, he said.
“It is a matter of concern, but that’s the answer they gave,” said Trisha Jedele, a lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation, an advocacy group. “And you continue to assess the data and stay vigilant and make sure that ultimately that’s what happens in the end.”
The economic stakes are considerable. Deepwater, the developer favored by Rhode Island, says that the wind farm proposed in the sound could generate 1.3 million megawatt hours of power a year, light up 125,000 homes and create more than 600 jobs.
The competition is so heated that Rhode Island officials have asked researchers to keep some of their results secret.
Yet in some ways, the scientists are embracing the competition, said Scott McWilliams, a University of Rhode Island ecologist who has been using radar to plot flight patterns of various birds in an effort to figure out how wind farms might affect migrations and habitats. “There’s definitely a rivalry in getting something in the ground first.”