The nation’s first offshore wind farm takes shape off R.I.
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BLOCK ISLAND, R.I. — To some, they're engineering marvels, the ultimate solution to precarious energy prices and dangerous levels of carbon emissions. To others, they're expensive, blinking monstrosities that mar the pristine horizon and will prove a boondoggle for electricity customers.
Yet over the past two weeks, the five massive wind turbines rising from the sea just off the southeastern bluffs of this small island — well within view of the pricey, cedar-shingled homes onshore — have claimed a landmark distinction: This fall, they are set to become the nation's first offshore wind farm.
"This is a historic project that opens the United States to the offshore wind industry," said Jeff Grybowski, chief executive of Deepwater Wind, a Rhode Island-based company behind the $300 million project. "There have been many failed projects proposed previously in the US. We're very proud that we've led the way."
The 30-megawatt project, which will feed into the region's electrical grid and provide enough energy to power some 17,000 homes, including all of Block Island, comes as Massachusetts makes an unprecedented investment in the nation's nascent offshore wind industry.
This month, Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill that compels the region's utilities to buy 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power, the nation's largest such requirement to date.
That's enough energy to power nearly a million homes, more than twice the amount produced by the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, a clean source of power scheduled to close in 2019.
"The Massachusetts legislation is the most important thing that's ever happened to the offshore wind industry," Grybowski said. "There's now an enormous opportunity, and we view this as a huge step for our industry."
Deepwater Wind and its competitors, Dong Energy and OffshoreMW, are poised to compete for contracts to build those wind farms in the coming years. In 2013, each won leases for vast tracts of federal waters south of Martha's Vineyard and Rhode Island.
Grybowski considers the Block Island turbines a small-scale demonstration of much larger wind farms he hopes to build in those waters, which would be 15 to 25 miles from shore and well beyond view from land. His company would like to build some 200 turbines that could produce as much as 1,000 megawatts of power.
But as Massachusetts has seen with the ill-fated Cape Wind project, offshore wind power can be highly divisive, generating opposition from property owners, fishermen, and ratepayers.
Offshore turbines, which have become pervasive in Europe, cost significantly more to build than those onshore, but operate more efficiently because the wind blows more continuously and without obstruction.
Cape Wind, which planned to build more than 100 turbines in Nantucket Sound, had long sought to be the nation's first offshore wind farm. But it has been stymied for more than a decade by regulatory hurdles and a spate of lawsuits amid concerns about spoiled views, environmental damage, and higher energy prices. Offshore wind remains significantly more expensive than conventional power, such as natural gas.
The Block Island project, first proposed eight years ago, has faced many of the same concerns.
Opponents have argued that the project was forced through by politicians cozy with industry, and will cost ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
"This just doesn't make economic sense," said Al Lubrano, 66, whose summer house overlooks the turbines and who has helped finance several lawsuits against the project.
Lubrano, a former president of the Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, insists the additional costs of wind power will make it harder for the state to attract businesses.
"This is a recipe for economic disaster," he said.
But state and local officials, along with other island residents, say economics are what made the wind farm possible.
Nick Ucci, deputy commissioner of Rhode Island's Office of Energy Resources, said the wind farm solved a crucial problem that has long plagued the island's 1,000 year-round residents. Block Island has never been connected to the electricity grid, and residents have had to rely on smog-producing diesel generators that led to some of the nation's highest energy prices.
The wind farm, scheduled to begin producing power this fall, provides a direct connection to the mainland.
"We're excited because the residents will finally have access to competitive energy," Ucci said. "They should be able to realize significant energy savings over the years."
The new undersea connection also includes fiber optic cable that local officials say will help increase Internet speeds, which are notoriously slow, especially in the summer when the island's population can swell to 20,000.
While critics maintain there were cheaper ways to connect to the grid, local officials disagree. Building a cable alone, they say, would have cost between $60 and $80 million.
"People opposed to the wind farm always say there were alternatives for the cable, but I have never seen those alternatives," said Nancy Dodge, the island's town manager for 16 years. "Fundamentally, they just don't like the turbines. A lot of the opposition, really, is NIMBY."
Even the owner of the local power company, which supplies electricity to the island through several aging generators, supports the wind farm.
"This is important for the future of the island," said Clifford McGinnes, 81, owner of Block Island Power Co., which recently lost several of its generators and other equipment when a piston misfired and sparked a blaze that burned through several of the company's buildings.
That, he said, underscored the fragility of the island's energy system. "This will allow us more stability," he said.
Last week, as a fleet of boats and cranes installed the 730-ton turbines, which rise nearly 600 feet above the water, tensions lingered.
Rosemarie Ives and her husband, whose family has owned land along the southeastern coast for nearly a century, grimaced as they looked at the towers looming on the horizon, just past their well-manicured yard.
"It just intrudes on a view that many of us have enjoyed for many, many years," said Ives, 69, who has summered on the island with her family for decades and supported the lawsuits against the project.
She lamented the lights that flash at night. "It's not the same feeling anymore," she said.
Other neighbors were more sanguine.
"I'm not the biggest tree hugger, but this is a step into the future for us," said Vin McAloon, 77, who can also see the wind farm from his house. "And I think they're kind of beautiful to look at."