Ocean Spatial Planning: a crucial tool in offshore wind development


image-1  By Maggie Ferrato, Fall 2016 Fellow

As environmentalists know all too well, the election of Donald Trump threatens much of the progress made in the last eight years.  Of particular concern is the fate of programs and policies recently established by executive order, such as the National Ocean Policy, which provides for the development of regional marine spatial plans.[1]  To understand the importance of ocean spatial planning, why it came about, and what is at stake, it is helpful to look to Rhode Island, the site of the nation’s first and only offshore wind farm.

Rhode Island’s Wind Farm

Rhode Islanders are a proud bunch, made prouder still by the state’s newest claim to fame: the nation’s first offshore wind farm.  The 30 MW Block Island Wind Farm, located 3 miles off the coast of Block Island, will come on-line later this year.  Though the project is comparatively small—perhaps fitting for the smallest state—news outlets have been touting the Block Island Wind Farm as precedent-setting.  However, more important than the wind farm itself is how it came about.  What made this project viable where others failed?

More than a decade ago, the state quietly began its push toward renewable energy, setting its sights on offshore wind.[2]  Despite their optimism, officials acknowledged a dearth of information on how the ocean was used and where an offshore wind farm should be built.  The state of Rhode Island and Deepwater Wind, the wind farm’s developer, ultimately took active leadership roles in addressing these questions, demonstrating foresight and a strong commitment to stakeholder engagement.  Much of what followed is a story of collaboration and coordination between diverse stakeholders and competing interests.

In 2008, the Coastal Resources Management Council—the state’s coastal management agency—and the University of Rhode Island began work on an ambitious project: the creation of an Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) to guide decision-making in the waters off Rhode Island’s coast.  Adopted in 2010, the Ocean SAMP enables the state to make informed decisions about shared ocean resources like fisheries, transportation channels, and, of course, offshore energy facilities.[3]

With the Ocean SAMP as a guide, the Block Island Wind Farm was born.  Jeff Grybowski, CEO of Deepwater Wind, credited the project’s success in part to the development of the Ocean SAMP, saying “we’re here because the state of RI engaged in an ocean planning process a number of years ago.”[4]  The company, guided by state requirements, was able to build off the Ocean SAMP’s planning and stakeholder engagement process—conducting outreach to the local fishing community, designing and implementing groundfish and lobster studies with local fishermen and scientists, and developing a process to compensate fishermen impacted by wind farm construction.[5]  In doing so, Deepwater Wind and the state of Rhode Island achieved a level of buy-in for the Block Island Wind Farm rarely seen in energy projects these days.

The Ocean Planning Kickstart

Why exactly does an integrated ocean management plan matter for offshore wind development? In the case of Rhode Island, the Ocean SAMP ruled out areas of high value or sensitivity in advance, helping satisfy stakeholder concerns and giving Deepwater Wind greater confidence that its project would be approved.[6]  More generally, ocean planning gives stakeholders the opportunity to work together from the start, circumventing potential use conflicts and costly legal battles further down the line, and taking into account the priorities of all stakeholders.  Greater certainty in a nascent industry like offshore wind de-risks investment, enables developers to spend less time and money fighting lawsuits, and makes project timelines more predictable—ultimately getting more clean energy on the grid.  Contrary to the claims of critics, having state governments and local stakeholders involved in robust spatial planning can decrease the amount of time and money developers need to obtain necessary permits.[7]

Future Offshore Wind Development…

The possibility of a rapid expansion in offshore wind has, in part, driven interest in ocean planning at the regional and federal level.  On December 7, 2016 the National Ocean Council approved the nation’s first regional ocean plans, the Northeast Ocean Plan and the Mid-Atlantic Ocean Plan, written by the regional planning bodies and guided by the National Ocean Policy.  These regional ocean plans are a collaboration between stakeholders—state and federal agencies, local tribes, and fishery management council members—and are each accompanied by a data portal where ocean use information is made public.  Though the plans don’t go as far as Rhode Island’s Ocean SAMP in marking explicit Renewable Energy Zones, they too exemplify a proactive and collaborative approach to siting offshore wind farms and balancing ocean uses.

Regional ocean plans have the potential to streamline the offshore energy permitting process—overseen by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)—and get more wind farms online, bringing the United States closer to its climate commitments.  Instead of starting over with stakeholder engagement, ocean use studies, and environmental assessments for each wind farm, developers and BOEM will be able to consult already-engaged stakeholders and an existing database of ocean uses.  This will enable them to select and lease locations best suited to offshore wind development and screen out areas that have been previously identified as highly contentious or environmentally challenging, reducing the potential for future conflicts in the siting process. While these regional plans won’t solve all ocean-use conflicts, the adoption and implementation of the plans will enable BOEM to conduct more meaningful local outreach and allow other ocean users to make their voices more clearly heard.

…under the Trump Administration

Though the future looks grim for many environmental priorities under President-elect Donald Trump, there is strong state and industry support for the development and use of regional ocean plans, giving some ocean spatial planning experts cause for cautious optimism.  According to Anne Merwin, ‎Director of Ocean Planning at Ocean Conservancy, dismantling the regional ocean planning processes would be an unpopular move with industry, which could deter the Trump Administration.  This may leave states, developers, and even agencies free to use and add to the ocean use data that has already been collected.[8]

In the northeast, Grover Fugate, Executive Director of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council and co-leader of the Ocean SAMP and Northeast Ocean Plan processes, found another cause for optimism.  In his view, now that the Northeast Ocean Plan data has been collected and stakeholders have been convened, there is little stopping states, agencies, and developers from using this information to guide offshore wind development.[9]

As was demonstrated in Rhode Island, the use of ocean spatial planning is central to the rapid and equitable development of offshore wind in the United States.  In the coming months and years, is imperative that the regional ocean plans be put to good use.


Maggie Ferrato is a Fellow with the Clean Energy Leadership Institute and a Legislative Assistant for the U.S. Senate. 



[1] Executive Order 13547: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/executive-order-stewardship-ocean-our-coasts-and-great-lakes

[2] Interview with Grover Fugate, Executive Director of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20080925005968/en/Rhode-Island-Governor-Carcieri-Names-Deepwater-Wind and http://www.seaplan.org/wp-content/uploads/Addressing-Interactions-between-Fisheries-and-Offshore-Wind-Development-BIWF-May-2016.pdf

[3] Ocean SAMP: http://seagrant.gso.uri.edu/oceansamp/

[4] http://keeptheoceanworking.com/stories/jeff-grybowski/

[5] http://www.seaplan.org/wp-content/uploads/Addressing-Interactions-between-Fisheries-and-Offshore-Wind-Development-BIWF-May-2016.pdf

[6] Page 49-50: http://seagrant.gso.uri.edu/oceansamp/pdf/Practitioner_Guide.pdf

[7] Deepwater Wind received its permits in two years, while Cape Wind waited nine years for permits: http://www.providencejournal.com/article/20150723/OPINION/150729732

[8] Interview, Anne Merwin

[9] Interview, Grover Fugate