OFF THE COAST OF RHODE ISLAND ― Frigid, briny winds whip tiny Block Island each autumn, stripping the ash trees of their leaves and driving home the hordes of vacationers who increase its population twentyfold during the summer.
This year, those gusts are also spinning the blades of five wind turbines that now tower 589 feet above the sea and power the homes of the island’s 1,000 year-round residents.
North America’s first offshore wind farm, Block Island Wind Farm, started operations last Wednesday and is expected to be in full swing by Thanksgiving. 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.
It’s a modest U.S. launch for an industry that has been booming in Europe. But it’s a big win after 15 years of trying to get offshore wind power off the ground.
“This has taken a lot of perseverance,” Tom Kiernan, chief executive of the trade group American Wind Energy Association, told The Huffington Post during a boat tour of the turbines last week. “It’s been a long road to get here.”
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.
“We never cared about being first. We just cared about getting it right.”
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.
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.
“Initially we were scared to death at the idea of a wind project because we were afraid what might happen,” said Bill McElroy, a lobsterman and chairman of the Fisheries Advisory Board for Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council, in an interview with the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy last year. “We saw this as just another possibility of bad news for the industry, but then when Deepwater Wind assured [us] that they would do everything they could to avoid taking over prime fishing grounds and work with us ― it allayed those fears.”
Indeed, a lone fishing trawler sat anchored a few miles north of the farm last Thursday. Twice during the tour, pods of dolphins surfaced as they fed near the site. The dark yellow platforms the turbines sit on are already encrusted with layers of mollusks.
“Most of the commercial fishermen who fish near the farm are now comfortable with what we’re doing,” Grybkowski told HuffPost. “The foundations are actually acting as natural reefs. The mussels on them go two to three inches deep.”
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 wind resource off Block Island is excellent, but 15 to 20 miles offshore is even better,” Grybowski said. “Plus, the best way to avoid controversies is to push farther offshore.”
Unlike in Europe, where largely urbanized countries have long looked to the sea for areas open enough to harvest wind, the U.S. has big, sparsely inhabited swaths of land in the middle of the country, where the wind industry has focused most of its development so far. But the potential for offshore wind is huge, particularly in the more densely populated Northeast.
“We didn’t have the infrastructure in the U.S. to build the large projects we were starting to see in Europe,” said Bryan Martin, head of the private equity division of hedge fund D.E. Shaw & Co., which is Block Island Wind Farm’s majority shareholder, in a speech onboard a ferry last week. “We never cared about being first. We just cared about getting it right.”
“When you’re going to learn how something works, things go wrong,” he said. “When things go wrong, they get nixed. With large projects, little things go wrong and they can kill the project.”
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.
“It is a legally guaranteed, risk-free money machine,” Forbes reporter Christopher Helman concluded.
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.
“If more companies come here, they know they’ll find top talent here,” Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) told HuffPost. “We beat New York and Massachusetts. We were able to work through the opposition. As a result, the thing didn’t fall apart because of politics.”