An Interview with Jennifer McCann

Director for US Coastal Programs and Extension, Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant, Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island


In 2007, the Coastal Resources Center (CRC) and Rhode Island Sea Grant (CRC/RISG) at the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island (URI) had the opportunity to help create a comprehensive regulatory plan for Rhode Island’s ocean waters.  In the previous year, the governor at the time, Donald Carcieri, was looking for a new economic development opportunity for the state of Rhode Island.  Offshore wind emerged as an opportunity with solid potential for Rhode Island and the Northeast because we have a shallow Outer Continental Shelf, a good strong offshore wind source and many coastal cities that could use offshore renewable energy. 

So, the governor and the state’s coastal programs agreed that the process called the Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) would be used to identify where offshore renewable energy would be located off our shore.  Rhode Island has been creating these integrated coastal plans since the 1980s and URI has been a partner in everyone -- there are eight so far.  The result of this new effort is called the Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP).

The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) was the lead in the development of the Ocean SAMP, but the University played the leadership role in bringing all of the best available science to the table.  We also facilitated a transparent public process where we were able to respond to the concerns of the resource users and stakeholders as well as communicate the science that the researchers were bringing to us. 

The Ocean SAMP was formally adopted at the state level in 2010 and became part of the states coastal program.  Federal adoption soon followed and since then the Ocean SAMP has been the guiding document for how Rhode Island proactively is designing its coasts and oceans around the issue of offshore renewable energy.  Because of the Ocean SAMP, a wind developer that proposes siting wind farms off our coasts, whether they be in federal or state waters, is required to periodically come and present their plans in a public setting.  Part of that public requirement is to come before CRMC’s Fishemans Advisory Board (FAB) or Habitat Advisory Board (HAB) and communicate their proposed construction, siting and monitoring processes.  Then these formal advisory boards provide advice to our state coastal programs. 

With the Ocean SAMP, we – with support from resource users and scientists - designed a renewable energy zone off Block Island.  This informed the developers that if you put your turbines in this zone, the permitting process would likely be more streamlined because we’ve already vetted this area with tribes, fishermen, scientists, environmentalists and others.  This helped move the project along and now we have the only operating offshore wind turbines in the United States. 

The regulations that Rhode Island has been able to establish through the Ocean SAMP give our state coastal program more influence over the process of siting offshore renewable infrastructure.  Through the Ocean SAMP we’ve documented what happens in state or federal waters and how it potentially could impact our economy, our environment and our cultural.  Because this has been documented and recognized by the federal government, Rhode Island can have significant influence over what happens in those waters. 

I call the Ocean SAMP a tool with teeth because it is a regulatory document based on science and stakeholder knowledge, with enforcement behind it.  There is a requirement that you look at the ocean as a single ecosystem.  You’re not just managing one area like fisheries or shipping.  You’re looking at the connections between all of those aspects in a comprehensive form.  It requires that the best available science is used and that there is a public process to ensure that local knowledge is also part of the process.  Given that URI and the CRMC have partnered on every previous SAMP development, we hit the ground running because there was a trust between the two organizations. 


URI is now assisting CRMC on a new project, the Narragansett Bay SAMP.  As more offshore wind farms are developed in federal waters, even some farms that are not delivering electricity to Rhode Island will have to come through the state’s waters.  There will be export cables coming into Narragansett Bay; some landing in Rhode Island on the west side of the bay and others in Massachusetts on the east side, but these will still be passing through Rhode Island waters. 

The Narragansett Bay SAMP will take what we did off Block Island with the renewable energy zone and apply it to a preferred cable route in the bay.  Narragansett Bay is so heavily used and valued by recreational sailing and fishing, quahogging, commercial shipping and fishing, the Coast Guard, the Navy and others -- there are so many users of the bay.  The Bay SAMP is getting all of these entities in the room to share how they use Narragansett Bay, while the developers will share their proposed strategies for laying the cable. 

The stakeholders will ask questions like, how deep are you burying the cable, what about the anchor sites, what about electromagnetic fields and how are you going to deal with special conditions like the presence of boulders.  So, it’s an opportunity for all of these diverse stakeholders to sit around the table and ask questions publicly to the developer.  And CRMC, which will be awarding the permit, is sitting there saying, “You need to give us this information” or “We recommend you provide us with this information” or “How are you going to monitor the potential effects?” 

This is what we do now with offshore renewable energy in Rhode Island.  It’s a public conversation to determine how development takes place and for offshore wind, it all began with the Ocean SAMP.  I will say that many people are supportive of the appropriate development of offshore renewable energy, but it has to be appropriately developed, done in a transparent way and it has to use the best available science and local knowledge.  That was the way the Block Island wind farm.  We hope that these principles will be applied as the hundreds of offshore wind turbines are deployed.  We understand this is a difficult request and many are working hard to do this.

I think it is a process that understands the Bay and those who use it.  For example, we understand that the quahogging industry isn’t as big as is used to be, but they’re part of the culture, part of who we are in Rhode Island, part of our maritime heritage in our past and present and in our future.  They need to be at the table just as much as the defense industry and the renewable energy companies to determine where and how these cables should be laid. 

Because of the Ocean SAMP, we have researchers at URI who look at the models used to determine the potential electromagnetic field (EMF) effects on fish species, as well as testing the cables in real-life situations.  It’s very clear to our researchers that the models are not necessarily accurate.  Sometimes there is more EMF, sometimes there is less in the real-life situation.  This is an issue that one of our URI researchers has identified and is something that we in Rhode Island are discussing with the intent that we do need to ensure that there is monitoring to understand the real effects by cables. 

What we’re finding is that some fish, as well as lobsters and some skates, are being impacted by EMF, especially if the cable is not buried properly.  This effect It may not be a significant effect, but we know we need to monitor the cables for this because the concern is if it will affect the reproduction or feeding behavior of these species and therefore obviously impact our fishing community and our natural resources.  So, these conversations are taking place within the Rhode Island community and that is because of the way the Ocean SAMP was set up.  It is a process that people realized was successful and so we continue to do it as we move forward. 

Rhode Island has a very diverse and strong blue economy.  The blue economy ranges from defense to fisheries to aquaculture to renewable energy.  It also includes our research and education institutions as well as our state government entities and non-profit organizations.  What we found is that the blue economy is part of our past, it is our present and it can be part of our future.  We’ve identified that the blue economy sector in Rhode Island has a direct effect of more than $5 billion and that’s very conservative.

One thing that we’re strongly recommending is that we increase synergies between the sectors, as well as through innovation and workforce development, so we can grow a stronger blue economy and sustainable growth for Rhode Island.  The new offshore renewable energy industry is benefitting from our maritime heritage and marine trades.  We have people who know how to rig yachts and climb masts and captain boats and be comfortable on the water.  Those are skills that are required by the offshore renewable energy industry.  We also have a strong defense industry.  We are second to none when it comes to undersea technology.  These are the technologies that are needed by the offshore renewables industry.  Relationships such as private-public partnerships are the type that will bolster a strong offshore renewable sector. 

The other thing we need to recognize is that, in order for offshore renewable energy to expand, we need to make sure that we’re minimizing the impact that the offshore renewable industry has on existing resource users and our natural resources.  For example, we can ask if our commercial fishing industry has to look like it does.  What if we invested in technologies that allowed the industry to more easily and safely fish within the wind turbines?  Or what if we could use innovation techniques that URI is creating to minimize the effects of these offshore activities on marine mammals like the endangered right whale? 

There are people with really good ideas who are not being connected or maybe don’t have the support they need in order to make these creative and innovative ideas move forward.  How about applying research to create techniques that will help our state and region be more resilient to increased sea level rise.  Can we invest in existing and future technologies to maintain a sustainable transportation infrastructure given large portions will be underwater in 30 years if we don’t do anything about it or houses – maybe floating - that are more resilient to increased storms?  Can we encourage researchers and the defense industry to collaborate on innovative techniques to better understand the changes in our coastal and ocean resources or develop sensors and robots to monitor changes in our underwater environment that can be used in other sectors of our maritime supply chain – like our aquaculture industry?  We already bring people to Rhode Island to learn about marine spatial planning and the wind farm and our other coastal resources.  Is there research tourism that could be developed? 

These are the kinds of things that if we position ourselves correctly, the offshore renewable energy can help Rhode Island.  If we continue to integrate all aspects of the blue economy, we will have a bigger impact economically, environmentally and culturally here in RI as opposed to just promoting offshore wind because it’s a great industry independent of other things.  By investing in the blue economy, we are growing a sustainable Rhode Island.


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