NIMBY plays an important role in renewable energy projects. Lots of people complain about wind turbines but seem to revel in the sight of utility poles and electrical lines marching across the landscape from horizon to horizon. One is new so it stands out from our ordinary daily experience. The other has been part of the landscape since Hector was a pup. Over the years, we have trained ourselves not to notice.
When the plan to install wind turbines off the coast of Block Island, 12 miles from the shore of Rhode Island, was announced, there were the usual concerns. It would be a blight on the gorgeous seascape that surrounds Block Island. And it might have a negative impact on fishing, which is one of the major commercial activities in the area. The wind turbines have been in operation for more than a year now and the first data is becoming available about their effect on tourism and fishing.
Tourism Is Up 19%
Researchers at the University of Rhode Island have examined data provided by Airbnb and concluded that tourism in July and August is up 19% since the turbines became operational, according to Science Daily. Not only that, the average amount paid for vacation rentals is up significantly. During the other 10 months of the year, however, no discernible increase in tourism was found.
That’s not surprising. Block Island offers visitors a charming and authentic old New England vacation experience, but the tourist season begins just before the 4th of July and ends abruptly on Labor Day. After that, the locals hunker down and wait for the tourists to return 10 months later.
“It’s a common argument for pushback against siting offshore wind, but there isn’t a lot of empirical evidence about it one way or the other,” says Corey Lang, an associate professor of environmental economics at URI. “There have been surveys done assessing how tourists might feel about it, based on potential images of turbines in offshore waters, but those are hypothetical.”
“Some of the recent surveys suggest that people consider offshore wind farms to be an eyesore,” says doctoral student Andrew Carr-Harris, a URI doctoral candidate. “People tend to think the turbines will ruin the seascape and detract from their beach experience.”
The researchers collected data from Airbnb concerning monthly revenues, occupancy rates, and reservations starting two years before construction of the turbines began and ending one year after it was completed. They compared Airbnb rental trends in Block Island to those in nearby communities that are also dependent on summer vacation rentals — Narragansett, Westerly, and Nantucket.
During July and August following construction of the turbines, Airbnb rentals on Block Island rose 19% on average with an increase of $3490 in monthly revenue compared to those other tourist destinations. “We have multiple indicators for the tourism market, and they seem to be indicative that there was an increase in interest in visiting Block Island in the year after construction of the wind farm,” said Lang. The research findings were published recently in the journal Resource and Energy Economics.
“I think there has been some excitement about it.” Lang says. “People are excited about renewable energy and sustainability, and they want to get behind it. So for the nation’s first offshore wind farm, we believe our results indicate that it has had a positive effect on tourism.”
“There are other factors that could be at play, too,” adds Carr-Harris. “It’s perceived that there is better fishing near the turbines, for instance, so more people may be coming to the island to go fishing.”
The researchers noted that the curiosity factor may dissipate shortly, so the positive effects on vacation rentals may not persist for long. Also, because the Block Island Wind Farm is the first of its kind in North America, it may be generating more tourism interest than will future wind farms. “So it’s difficult to extrapolate our results to other communities. But it mitigates some fear that there’s going to be big negatives,” Lang says.
The Impact On Fishing Is Mixed
Another URI survey finds mixed results about whether the turbines have impacted fishing in the area. Recreational fishermen generally view them positively while the commercial fishermen see them as mostly negative, according to doctoral student Tayla ten Brink. “Little is known about the impacts of offshore wind farms on marine users in the United States, and it’s critical to understand these impacts in context,” she says. “Generally, our findings show there are uneven impacts on the different fishing sectors.”
According to a report by EcoRI, almost all of the fishermen agreed that there is more recreational fishing taking place in the vicinity of the wind turbines because the turbine support structures serve as artificial reefs that attract a variety of fish and marine invertebrates to the area. For instance, cod and other species not found in the area before are now found regularly in the waters around the turbines. The area has also become a prime destination for recreational spearfishing.
Commercial fishermen, on the other hand, complain that all those tourist, spear fishers, and recreational fishermen stomping around the fishing grounds are an inconvenience they could do without. They also worry about running into the turbines. The survey results could have implications for future offshore wind farms.
“Climate change is a huge problem worldwide, and renewable-energy resources could reduce CO2 emissions by half, so if we’re planning on using offshore wind, it’s important to understand the concerns and the pros and cons of the structures being out there,” ten Brink says. “Once we understand, it will be much easier to have a productive discussion about how to go forward with offshore wind development. As with any large scale project, offshore wind development can be done right or wrong.”
She suggests wind developers should build relationships with charter boats and recreational fishing organizations. Developers might also ease the concerns of commercial fishermen by supporting the acquisition of new navigation equipment for the them. “The survey results open up a lot of ways to create win-win situations,” she says.
She cautions, however, that her results only reflect the impacts of one small wind facility in operation for only a year. Once the novelty wears off for the recreational fishermen and the commercial fishermen learn to live with the turbines, their perceptions may change. “There were fishermen who were really worried about the impacts and were pleased when the impacts weren’t too bad, but they’re still worried about the impacts of more and more turbines in the future,” ten Brink observes.
We are about to find out. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey are planning to construct massive new offshore wind farms off their coasts in the next few years. Perhaps these two URI studies will help those projects go more smoothly.
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