Unique Wind Farm study underway

By URI Marine Affairs department
Sat, 08/19/2017 - 7:00am

The cable, its impact on energy prices, and being first-in-the-nation have been the most talked about issues concerning the Block Island Wind Farm.

That conclusion comes from the Marine Affairs Department at the University of Rhode Island, which was contracted by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to analyze wind farm related content to document its effects on recreation and tourism in Rhode Island. Hollie Smith, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at URI, said the assessment was arrived at after she and a graduate student, Christine Gilbert, analyzed transcripts from public meetings and reviewed media coverage of the wind farm.  

“The overall project is three phases and runs from November 2016 through October 2018,” said Smith of the ongoing research project. “My research is the first phase and started right at the beginning, in November 2016, and Christine and I will continue to collect data until May 2018.”

Smith told The Block Island Times that in order to conduct the research, she and Gilbert have read through “more than 400 newspaper articles and hundreds of pages of meeting transcripts” and “coded sentences for themes related to the economy, environment, aesthetics, and culture, among others. About 80 percent of all newspaper coverage we analyzed was from The Block Island Times because the coverage of the project was so extensive.”

Smith, a former journalist, noted that she now conducts research “on the way media outlets cover environmental and scientific topics.” With the Block Island Wind Farm, Smith said her goal was to “try to get a better understanding of how people were talking about the wind farm in both the media and public hearings.”

“To give you a sense of the process, Christine and I would read an article and use a software that lets us highlight pieces of text within the article,” said Smith. “We used past research on media coverage of wind farms to guide us.” For example, she said “a December 16, 2016 article in The Block Island Times, titled ‘Wind Farm begins commercial operation,’ included the quote from Gov. Gina Raimondo: ‘With this project, we've put hundreds of our local workers to work at sea and at our world class port and are growing this innovative industry,’ and that specific quote was coded under the economic benefit theme.”

Smith said they “coded for things people described as a risk and a benefit under each big theme, so if someone talked about rising electricity prices for Rhode Islanders, we would have coded that as an economic risk. This type of extensive coding process lets us really get familiar with our data. The time we spend reading the articles also helps us understand how people are talking about the wind farm in terms of weighing the benefits and risks.”

The most fascinating part of their research was seeing “trends emerge” as they “read through news articles from 2009, when the project was in its infancy, to the point now when the turbines are spinning,” she said. “We will still be collecting articles for the project all the way through next year so we can see if the conversation changes after the turbines have been in place for a full year.”

Smith said utilizing news articles and meeting transcripts helped identify the “recurring ways people were talking about the wind farm. The results have been really surprising. In the beginning of the project, we thought tourism and recreation would be a huge component of the public conversation, but it wasn’t. One of the biggest issues that people discussed was the cable that would bring better access to high-speed reliable Internet to the island. The cable itself was one of the most talked about issues.”

Smith noted that people talked about the wind farm being the first in the nation, “and they talked about the wind farm more in terms of economics than anything else. This economic framing wasn’t surprising because it mirrors what researchers have found in media coverage of wind projects in other places, like Maine, Texas, and Massachusetts.”

Smith said she was surprised “that Deepwater Wind was much more active in the conversation than we often see with private companies or developers — and sources from Deepwater Wind were the most used source in media coverage. This surprised us because many times you don’t see the developers engaging in a public conversation, but Deepwater Wind was the opposite in terms of engaging in conversation, and appeared in the media coverage much more frequently than any other source.”

“Media researchers have long been interested in how media coverage of an event is related to an audience’s understanding, support, and opposition to projects like these,” she said. “The idea that media coverage affects people’s perceptions and actions has been a focus in media research for years and that’s why we looked at how people are talking about the project and also who is talking.”

“Researchers have done similar studies on other environmental and scientific issues, so this was a great opportunity to extend that work and document the public discourse about the first wind farm in the United States,” said Smith. “It really is an exciting and important project.”

The 30-megawatt Block Island Wind has been delivering wind-generated power to the island since May 1, and to the mainland since December of 2016.