By Diane Cardwell
July 23, 2015
A few miles off the coast of Block Island, part of Rhode Island, a small flotilla has been gathering: crane vessels, tugboats and barges that began this week installing the 1,500-ton foundations of the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm.
It’s a moment that its supporters have long anticipated, billing it as nothing less than the dawn of a new clean energy future for the United States, which lags Europe and China in harnessing ocean gusts for electricity.
It is a much more modest beginning than was originally expected. Only five turbines will spin in the waters off Rhode Island; other, more ambitious projects like Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound and its 130 turbines remain stalled. But its backers see it as one that could lend credibility to other efforts.
“Steel in the water off Block Island is an important step in proving that offshore wind is a viable technology off the coast of the United States,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees leasing federal waters. “Having an offshore wind project that people can see and understand and study will take away a lot of the concerns that folks had.”
A barge carrying pieces of the wind farm’s foundation, which was to be sunk and stabilized in the water. Credit Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times
Deepwater Wind, the company that is developing the farm, is pressing ahead. It holds a 30-year lease on a parcel in federal waters nearby — about 256 square miles about 15 miles southwest of Martha’s Vineyard — with room for as many as 250 turbines.
And Ms. Hopper’s agency is pressing on with efforts to create a market. It sold two leases off the coast of Massachusetts in January, plans to sell more near New Jersey by the end of this year and has begun identifying potential sites in the Carolinas.
But policy experts and business executives warn that without stable subsidies and mandates — and coordination among the states — offshore wind development will be limited to a few small demonstration projects. Along with Cape Wind, projects are stalled near Delaware, New Jersey and New York.
How far and fast the market develops depends, analysts and experts say, on how strong of a commitment the country makes to renewable energy in general.
“There are many good reasons why offshore wind has not been yet developed while other renewables have in the U.S.,” chiefly its high cost, said Paul Bledsoe, an energy consultant based in Washington and former climate adviser in the Clinton White House. “However, we’re still at a point where we have less than 10 percent renewable energy and if we are going to increase that number dramatically to somewhere near some of the major European countries, offshore wind will almost surely be part of that mix.”
That will take time. When the first offshore farm was built, in Denmark in 1991, developers were not thinking that it would suddenly become a mainstream form of energy, said Michael Hannibal, chief executive of the offshore division at Siemens Wind Energy, which supplied the turbines for that first plant. It took about a decade of testing and planning — and putting in place a set of programs and generous subsidies — for the market to begin taking off in Europe.
Part of what has driven the higher rate of adoption — especially in Britain, Denmark and Germany — is that Europe lacks as many cheap, clean (or cleaner) alternatives that can replace coal, diesel and nuclear plants. Electric rates are generally higher, natural gas is more expensive and open land for wind and solar fields is harder to find than in the United States, making an expansion to the seas more economically viable.
In the United States, the industry has been hampered by local opposition, fluctuating subsidies and a lack of specialized suppliers and expertise.
Offshore wind projects take a long time to plan and construct because they are more complicated and demand larger equipment that must function in the hostile environment of the high seas, said George Favaloro, a managing director in PricewaterhouseCoopers sustainable business solutions practice. The obstacles are surmountable, he said, but that would take an expectation that the industry will take off.
“We’re having a hard time making all that happen, frankly, because we’re rich in alternative sources of energy and rich in alternative sources of renewable energy,” he said. “It’s sort of a specialized set of circumstances now where this would be an attractive investment.”
That was what Block Island offered. Like many islands, its power prices are high because it is not connected to the mainland grid and depends on diesel for its electricity, and the state undertook an extensive planning process before designating the energy zone. With strong support from three governors over the seven years that Deepwater Wind, the developer, has worked on the project, it is about to come to fruition, said Jeffrey Grybowski, the chief executive.
The first of the foundations should be hitting the water this week, he said — although that process has been delayed by rough seas — and that will continue for the next eight weeks until all five are in, anchored by piles driven 200 feet into the ocean floor.
The turbines will not go in until next summer, although they are already under construction. The blades are sitting in a field in Denmark while the towers and nacelles are being put together.
He and others expressed optimism that the industry would get going, but added that it was important to have a project up and running to show not only policy makers but also utility executives and regulators that it was possible to get one through the permitting and financing process.
After so many failures, he said, to get the industry going, “We need a success.”
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By Diane Cardwell