America’s First Offshore Wind Energy Makes Landfall in Rhode Island
16th May 2017
America’s first offshore wind farm will connect today to Block Island, a small, pork chop-shaped landmass off the tip of Long Island. For Cliff McGinnes, a co-owner of the Block Island Power Company, the transition to wind energy can’t come soon enough.
For decades, McGinnes’s company ferried up to a million gallons of diesel fuel a year from the Rhode Island mainland to power this tiny resort community (pop. 1,000). The fuel, a particularly costly and dirty energy source whose carbon dioxide emissions are second only to burning coal, lit up four antiquated generators on an island where power outages are common.
Last year, an oil leak at one generator burst into flames, destroying that dynamo and two others. The fire also melted one of McGinnes’s utility trucks and caused rolling blackouts at the height of the summer tourism season, when the Block Island population balloons past 20,000. The company spent more than $100,000 to rent a pair of portable diesel generators. Customers, who already pay more for electricity than anyone in the country—50 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) or more during peak summer months, nearly five times the national average—shouldered the costs.
From now on, Block Island’s power will emanate from five wind turbines three miles off its southeast coast, each nearly twice the height of the Statue of Liberty. They were built by a company called Deepwater Wind at a cost of roughly $300 million. The energy they produce will not be cheap. Yet at a starting cost of 24 cents per kWh, the new system will save Block Islanders $25 to $30 a month off their electricity bills.
Offshore wind power clearly works for Block Island, a place where the economics of fossil fuels no longer makes sense. Can it also be an important part of the energy mix for the coastal U.S.? Analysts say it can, though states will have to work with developers to bring the costs down.
For now, fossil fuel-generated power still dominates in New England, where just 3 percent of electricity currently comes from wind and solar. But the Block Island pilot project, capable of powering 17,000 homes, offers the promise of more to come. The environmental group Oceana once dubbed the Eastern Seaboard the “Saudi Arabia of offshore wind” for its strong ocean breezes, shallow waters and close proximity to a densely populated region eager to decarbonize. Massachusetts and New York have both committed to generating a portion of their power in coming years from offshore wind, and Deepwater Wind is slated to build a larger clone of the Rhode Island wind farm—which began supplying power to the mainland in December—to serve Long Island.
Meanwhile, first-mover Rhode Island is in a position to capture a significant share of the approximately 11,000 jobs and $50 billion in investment projected for a potential 20-year regional build-out.
Onshore wind power has proved its worth. Electricity from new installations—which are being erected at a pace of roughly one turbine every two and a half hours around the country—sells for less than 6 cents per kWh, a price competitive with natural gas.
Offshore wind is still much more expensive, but that could change. Europe has shown that, when produced on a big enough scale, such power can compete. There, the price has fallen 46 percent in the last five years to an average of 13 cents per kWh. The figure beats the 16 cents for new nuclear power plants and is closing in on Europe’s 9 cent price tag for new coal plants, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
“If we could do what Europe is doing, then it would be at market price today,” said Willett Kempton, research director at the University of Delaware’s center for carbon-free power integration.
Block Island’s McGinnes, a lifelong Republican with no environmental leanings, is a convert. As chief operating officer of the Block Island Power Company, a position the plain-spoken 82-year-old Rhode Island native relinquished in November, his interest in wind was driven mostly by economics.
Block Island Wind Farm
Cliff McGinnes, co-owner of the Block Island Power Company. Photo: Phil McKenna
“For some people in this world, it doesn’t matter what the cost is,” McGinnes said, sitting at his desk last August before he retired as chief operating officer of Block Island Power. “They want to feel green, or they want to have an electric car, or they don’t want to get their electricity from a company that burns fuel oil. I have a tendency to be more about cost. That’s just the way I am.”
When the power company executives flip the switch, energy will flow from the turbines to the island via a subsea cable already connected to the mainland. The turbines will harness a steady offshore breeze that on most days will supply all the island’s energy needs and send additional electricity to the mainland. When the wind is not blowing, electricity will flow in reverse, sending electrons from conventional power plants on the mainland to the island. Costs will be subsidized by the larger pool of ratepayers statewide, who will see their electricity bills increase by an average of $1.35 per month when the system is in full operation.
McGinnes likes both the economics and the relative simplicity of wind power. “Running those diesels is nothing but a headache; there is always something going wrong,” said McGinnes. “If it hadn’t been for the wind farm and cable, we’d still be running them. It’s the best thing that has ever happened to us as a community.”