Five wind turbines in the waters off Rhode Island’s coast will start producing electricity this fall, fulfilling a years-old clean energy dream from President Obama and others.
Construction on the $300 million Block Island Wind Farm finished this month, becoming the United States’ first utility-scale offshore wind farm.
When it starts pumping power into the electrical grid, clean energy advocates hope the project will prove that offshore wind can work in the United States.
They also hope it will jumpstart an industry in the United States that has already succeeded in Europe and Asia and contribute significantly to the country’s renewable energy portfolio at a time of historically high interest in fighting climate change.
“I think this is incredibly impactful for the future of clean energy in this country,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the federal agency within the Interior Department in charge of permitting and leasing offshore wind power. “It shows that offshore wind can happen here in the United States.”
The Block Island farm, developed by Deepwater Wind, will only have a 30 megawatt generating capacity, enough to power 17,000 homes. But while the technology is far more expensive than traditional wind power, it’s both a small step and a giant leap, in terms of its power to demonstrate a technology.
“We like to see things, feel things and touch things,” Hopper said. “And the ability to go to Block Island and see an offshore wind farm in the United States, I think, will have an impact far greater than the size of the wind farm.”
BOEM and its predecessor, whose main responsibilities are in overseeing offshore oil and natural gas drilling, have worked since the early days of Obama’s presidency to encourage offshore wind by streamlining and easing the permitting process, and identifying the best areas for turbines.
It has leased 11 offshore areas for wind farms and is working on more.
The Department of Energy, meanwhile, has worked on research and development for wind energy, studying best practices and looking into advanced technologies like floating wind turbines.
The Rhode Island wind farm benefits from the production tax credit, which gives tax breaks for every kilowatt-hour of electricity that wind farms produce. The tax credit has received support from Obama and has been renewed multiple times during his time in office.
Jeff Colgan, a political science professor at Rhode Island’s Brown University, said flipping the switch the Block Island project is an important marker for Obama’s climate change legacy.
“It’s important for Obama to at least show that before the end of his presidency, one of these projects was built,” he said. “It would have been nice if there were more, but it would have been more of a failure if there was a goose egg on the board.”
The first offshore wind farm was supposed to start operations years ago with Massachusetts’ Cape Wind project.
Instead, opposition to the project led to litigation, permitting delays and the loss of contracts with utilities to buy the electricity, according to the Boston Globe.
The high cost of the projects, and competition from cheap natural gas, have also contributed to hesitation from developers that other countries with more offshore wind haven’t seen.
“Low natural gas prices, in conjunction with the Great Recession, really slowed the industry down,” said Jeremy Firestone, an energy policy professor at the University of Delaware.
“The price premium in the U.S. is significantly greater than that in Europe because of our low natural gas prices, so that makes it more difficult,” he said.
Obama demonstrated his early support for offshore wind by using his first Earth Day as president in 2009 to launch an initiative to get the ball rolling on the technology by overhauling the permitting and leasing process for turbines.
“The nation that leads the world in creating new sources of clean energy will be the nation that leads the 21st century global economy,” Obama said at the event at a wind turbine factory in Iowa. “America can be that nation. America must be that nation.”
David Hayes, who was Interior’s deputy secretary at the time and now teaches at Stanford University’s Law School, said the priority early on was to overhaul the permitting and leasing system for offshore wind.
“Ken Salazar and I came in really wanting to get renewable energy going on the public lands and waters,” Hayes said, referring to the Interior secretary at the time. “We really took the bull by the horns.”
Hayes and other offshore wind advocates had expected the industry to get off the ground much earlier than the final months of the administration.
The Cape Wind project off Massachusetts was long expected to be the first wind farm.
But it got tied up for more than a decade in permitting and litigation fights, fueled in part by Bill Koch, a brother of billionaire conservative and fossil fuel advocates Charles and David Koch.
Cape Wind’s major blow came last year, when two utilities ended their pacts to buy its electricity, since the project hadn’t obtained sufficient financing due to the litigation.
Offshore wind has various advantages over traditional wind turbines. The turbines can be massive — Block Island’s will rise 589 feet above the water, nearly twice the height of the Statute of Liberty — creating large economies of scale in power generation.
Wind blows stronger and more consistently over the ocean, and the facilities can be built close to the major coastal cities that need the electricity.
But the technology is also very expensive, due in part to the size and the need to import everything from overseas, since there is no domestic manufacturing industry yet.
Rhode Island is letting the company behind the project charge significantly more for the electricity it will generate than the state’s current market rates. The deal led to criticism from the state’s business community and an attempt to overturn the electricity deal, according to the Providence Journal.
While the fossil fuel-backed Institute for Energy Research doesn’t oppose wind, it says that the special consideration and incentives are wasteful.
“There could be a place for offshore wind,” said Dan Simmons, the group’s vice president for policy. “But let’s let people figure out where that is, without the subsidies and mandates that we are currently giving certain sources of generation. Because it could be that there are places where offshore wind could make sense.”
Nearly every proposed project has also faced local opposition from residents who think the turbines will ruin pristine ocean views, something the states and federal government try to minimize.
Nonetheless, supporters are optimistic that Block Island is ushering an industry with great potential.
“When you think about all the attributes of offshore wind, and how it can contribute to energy needs, climate needs and economic needs of states, I think the future is bright,” Hopper said, noting strong industry interest.
For advocates for fighting climate change, offshore wind is essential, since they believe the world needs to dramatically reduce greenhouse gases.
“Offshore wind is really important to a renewable future in the United States,” said Timmons Roberts, an environmental studies professor at Brown University.
“If we really are going to avoid these nasty impacts of climate change that are happening much faster than we expected, we probably need to get much more quickly to 100 percent renewables. So I think we’ve really got to scale this up pretty fast.”