Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Kicking its Diesel Generator Habit, Block Island, RI Can Soon Boast Offshore Wind Power

By Joni Sliger, Energy Fellow
Image is of Middelgrunden Wind Farm off the coast
of Denmark. Credit: NREL/DOE and H.C. Sorensen,
Middelgrunden Wind Turbine Cooperative.

Offshore wind energy has arrived. The U.S. finally has a fully constructed, soon-to-be-operational offshore wind farm: Block Island Wind Farm.  

Block Island is a small island off the southeastern coast of Rhode Island where, lacking transmission cables to the mainland grid, the 1,000 or so year-round residents rely on diesel-powered generators, guzzling a million gallons of fuel ferried over each year. When Block Island Wind Farm, or BIWF, starts generating power this fall, that will change.  

BIWF is a humble project. It consists of only five turbines with a total capacity of 30 MW, or enough capacity to power about 17,000 homes. On average, it should provide 90 percent of the island’s electricity needs, according to project representatives. The project is also installing an underwater transmission cable that will connect to the mainland grid, both to provide excess wind power to the mainland and to get power from the mainland when the wind does not meet the island’s electricity needs. Notably, the project is reportedly deliberately small to help it navigate through the muddy permitting process for offshore wind and dodge potentially project-killing criticism. For a taste of the myriad complications that can hinder offshore wind development, read GEI policy analyst Andrea Lang’s recent discussion of Native Americans’ religious opposition to Massachusetts’s proposed 468 MW offshore wind farm, Cape Wind.)

Compare the small BIWF project to those ongoing in Europe. As one of my colleagues reported earlier this year, DONG Energy is planning the world’s largest offshore wind project, a 1.2 GW-capacity wind farm off the east coast of the United Kingdom.

Still, do not be fooled by BIWF’s humble start. The local Block Island Times refers to the project as “one of the most important stories ever to happen in our town.” While emotions are mixed, some report the view of the turbines has provided “an ecotourism attraction,” wherein spectators may enjoy viewing what is, we can hope, the birth of America’s newest energy era.

As I have discussed previously, offshore wind energy offers the U.S. a potential 86,000 MW of power, achievable by 2050. The technology itself is not new; Europe has a booming offshore wind market. While 2016 marks the arrival of the first 30 MW of offshore wind energy to the U.S., Europe spent the first half of the year alone bringing over 500 MW online. (And analysts report that as a bad start to the year!) The U.S. now has five turbines in the water; Europe boasts 3,344.

Some refer to the project as a pilot, but it really is not. Offshore wind technology does not need further demonstration and testing. As the CEO of Deepwater Wind (the developer that owns BIWF), Jeff Grybowski, reported, “This is not a science project, not an R&D project–it’s a commercial project. We’re free riding on the technical innovations that the Europeans have made.”

Yet freeriding on the technological advances is not enough for some. Some critics lament, perhaps fairly, that the locals are not reaping enough of the benefit. For BIWF, Rhode Island provided some of the workforce and some of the foundations, but other elements came from South Korea, Spain, Denmark, and France. While ideally local production and local employment would guarantee local benefits, importing goods is perhaps just part of the price we pay for arriving late to the offshore wind party. (For further discussion of the costs and financing of offshore wind, stay tuned for next week’s blog post.)

Despite offshore wind’s success in other areas of the world, however, it was not (and perhaps is still not) an industry-accepted option in the U.S. According to a recent report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the simple lack of offshore wind turbines in the U.S. accounts for no small part of “an inability to build credibility around the market opportunity.”

The question now is whether BIWF finally provides that credibility and will help spur further deployment of offshore wind technology. For those like myself who see the future of energy production in renewables like offshore wind, we can certainly hope so.

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