Block Island Wind Farm / by Norris McDonald

North America’s first offshore wind farm, Block Island Wind Farm, started operations in November 2016 and includes five wind turbines that tower 589 feet above the sea and power the homes of the island’s 1,000 year-round residents. . When it is running at full capacity, the farm will generate enough electricity to power 17,000 homes, or about 4 percent of all households in Rhode Island.

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Cape Wind, a 130-turbine offshore wind farm planned five miles to the north off the coast of Massachusetts, was supposed to be the first in the country. That project was proposed in 2001 ― but for numerous reasons, has never actually gotten started and probably never will. Cape Wind’s struggles provided an instructive example of what not to do for Deepwater Wind, the Providence-based developer behind Block Island farm.

Where Cape Wind’s blueprints went big with 468 megawatts of power, Deepwater aimed for a more modest 30 megawatts. Cape Wind estimated its costs at $2.5 billion, while Deepwater came in at about $300 million. Block Island Wind Farm also had a smaller footprint and fewer, less powerful opponents to win over. Cape Wind has famously drawn opposition from people with surnames like Kennedy and Koch, who didn’t want windmills obstructing their beachfront views. Environmentalists, too, feared noise from the construction could disturb migrating whales.

Deepwater Wind also had another advantage over Cape Wind: Its CEO, Jeff Grybowski, was previously chief of staff to former Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri (R) and had access to state officials he’d later court for his wind project. It took seven years to complete the project, and Grybowski said he spent six of them navigating the Byzantine web of government agencies whose approval he needed.

Grybowski did have obstacles. Environmentalists had some of the same concerns about Block Island Wind Farm that they had about Cape Wind, and the project was halted for weeks to avoid harming right whales swimming north in the early spring months. Some on Block Island still complain that the turbines, roughly twice the height of the Statue of Liberty, are an eyesore. 

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There was also deep skepticism from Rhode Island’s fishing industry. Overfishing and climate change had already hammered local populations of winter flounder and lobster ― leading to strict new catch limits to preserve the future of those species and new struggles for the industry. The proposed wind farm seemed like another unwelcome development that could interfere with fishing.

Wind industry leaders hope Block Island Wind Farm signals the beginning of a boom offshore. There are already 13 other projects in various stages of development around the country, most of them in federal waters far offshore rather than in areas under state control. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) signed a bill in August that requires utilities in that state to buy up to 1,600 megawatts of power from offshore wind developers. That same month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced plans for his state to draw half of its power from renewable sources by 2030. Both of those policies are expected to help the offshore wind industry take off.

Deepwater Wind is already leasing two more parcels of land totaling 164,750 acres off the coast of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, which it plans to develop into a much larger, utility-scale farm with up to 200 turbines. By next spring, it also plans to send oceanographers to survey an area off the coast of Long Island where they hope to build a 15-turbine, 90-megawatt farm.

The firm wants to connect the Long Island farm to its bigger farms to the north through a transmission cable, creating a wind energy network along the Northeast coast. Unlike Block Island Wind Farm, which is nestled close to Block Island, the other farms will be located up to 25 miles offshore, where winds tend to be much stronger and more reliable.

The biggest obstacle to developing offshore wind energy may be its price. Deepwater Wind chose the site three miles off Block Island in part because of the island’s high energy prices. Residents had relied on electricity produced from burning diesel, paying upward of 50 cents per kilowatt hour in the summer  ― 287 percent more than the average American.

Deepwater Wind estimates that drawing from their power will lower residents’ power bills 40 percent. But that’s partly because mainland Rhode Islanders are footing the bill.

The company brokered a 20-year deal to sell National Grid wind power at 24.4 cents per kilowatt hour ― more than twice the price the utility pays for energy now. What’s more, the deal is written to allow a price increase of 3.5 percent per year. By the time the agreement expires, National Grid will be paying a rate of 50 cents per kilowatt hour to Deepwater Wind, a cost likely to be passed on to ratepayers in the state as a price increase.

For Deepwater Wind and its chief investor, that means a handsome payday. The project could generate more than $900 million in profit, according to calculations by Forbes, and that’s before you factor in $100 million in federal tax credits allotted to clean energy projects.

Another challenge may be the supply chain for turbine components, most of which did not come from Rhode Island. For these five turbines, Deepwater Wind enlisted General Electric to build the 240-foot blades in Denmark, while the nacelles, which house the gears and engines, are built in France. About 300 laborers from Rhode Island were joined by offshore rig workers from Louisiana, where the steel bases for the towers were built. The cable that connects the farm to shore came from South Korea.

Still, tiny Rhode Island — and its total population of 1 million; eight times smaller than New York City ― wants to be a pioneer in the U.S. offshore industry.  (Huff Post, 11/3/2016)