May 1, 2017, is the scheduled cutover date for the Block Island Wind Farm, whose five turbines will begin transmitting up to 30 megawatts of wind-generated power to the mainland power grid. The towers are arranged near Block Island, a tourist destination off the coast of Rhode Island that has about a thousand permanent residents.
At full strength, the turbines can power about 17,000 homes. They can supply up to 90 percent of Block Island’s energy needs, and surplus power can be transmitted to the U.S. power grid. Connecting the farm to the mainland power grid was the final step in a process that took most of a decade: seven years of regulatory approvals followed by two years of construction.
May 1 marks a victory for Deepwater Wind, the company that spearheaded the $300 million project. Based in Providence, Rhode Island, the company hopes to develop wind farms off the coasts of New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, and New Jersey.
All eyes will be on Block Island
Offshore is the last frontier for wind power in the United States, which has over 52,000 land-based wind turbines. Though the U.S. has ample shoreline for marine-based wind power, it hasn’t had much appetite for wind turbines posted in coastal waters.
That could change, though, depending on the success of the Block Island project. Ostensibly, the project aimed to help the island’s residents end their reliance on dirty, expensive diesel-powered generators. But the bigger-picture issue is whether the lessons of Block Island can help people find economical ways to develop offshore wind in the years to come.
Construction of the five towers began in the spring of 2015 and wrapped up in the fourth quarter of 2016 — on time and within budget, according to news reports. Given that wind farm technology is mature in Europe, which has over 3,000 offshore wind turbines, it’s no surprise that construction went pretty much as expected.
News reports said the turbines did fine during a coastal storm in March 2017 that produced winds of more than 70 mph. The true test will be how well the towers fare during hurricane season, when sustained winds above 100 mph can have disastrous consequences. The turbine’s blades can be feathered to protect against furious winds, but it’ll take a real hurricane to test their stormworthiness.
What’s ahead for U.S. offshore wind
At 600 feet high, the Block Island wind turbines are designed to capture stronger winds at higher altitudes. Future designs may be as high as 800 feet or more.
Deepwater Wind plans to build wind farms about 15 miles from the shoreline, where winds are stronger and the towers are less obtrusive to the eye. And developers are working on offshore platforms that could situate wind farms far out of sight of land, potentially silencing complaints that the towers ruin coastal views.
What we can’t see is how the social, political and economic winds will blow. These projects require years of financial and regulatory haggling. If fossil fuel costs remain low, investment dollars may be hard to come by. And the political climate could make it harder to get more wind farm projects approved.
The case for getting offshore wind into the mix
We have no illusions that renewables like wind and solar power will replace fossil fuels like petroleum and natural gas in the near future. But we do believe there’s much more room for renewables in the U.S. energy portfolio.
The U.S. is one of the largest contributors to the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet and causing climate change. That creates an obligation to apply the lessons of land-based wind power to the needs of offshore wind farms, and to learn from the experience of developers in Europe and Asia.
It’s true that offshore wind is expensive. The question is whether the cost of neglecting this resource will be even higher.
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