America's First Offshore Wind Farm to Start Construction This Summer

The small project to build five turbines secures full financing and approval, and breaks a barrier ahead of other projects mired in delay and controversy.

America's first offshore wind farm off the Rhode Island coast could be up and running in 2016. Credit: Offshore wind installation/Andreas Klinke Johannsen, flickr

A small wind project in New England just made history. Deepwater Wind announced Monday that its Block Island wind farm is fully financed and on track to become the nation's first offshore wind project.

Set to go online toward the end of 2016, the more than $290 million project involves constructing five wind turbines off the southwestern coast of Block Island, which lies about 13 miles off the coast of Rhode Island.

"In the minds of the general public and policymakers [offshore wind] is a very theoretical thing. That's the importance of Block Island: it will take offshore wind from theory to reality" in the United States, said Jeffrey Grybowksi, CEO of Providence-based Deepwater Wind.

According to the company, different parts of the turbines are already being built at fabrication plants in both Europe and the U.S., and the turbine foundations will likely be installed three miles off the Block Island coast this summer. 

Offshore wind farms are designed to harness the strong winds blowing over the sea and transform them into energy. The offshore turbines, each towering hundreds of feet into the air, generate power via the spinning of their massive blades. Generally, offshore wind turbines are bigger and can access faster winds than those onshore.

The U.S. offshore wind energy potential is over 4,000 gigawatts, according to a 2010 report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That is orders of magnitude more capacity than all the electricity being produced by the 70-plus offshore wind farms currently online across Europe, the global leader in offshore wind.

In the U.S., a handful of northeastern states have pursued this untapped source of renewable energy in the last decade as a way to diversify their energy sources and reduce their carbon footprints.

So far none of those projects––such as Cape Wind in Massachusetts and the Atlantic City Windfarm in New Jersey––have come off the ground. These projects have stalled largely due to funding issues: each project costs millions to billions of dollars and involves extensive infrastructure. There has also been strong public and political opposition to these projects, which could increase electricity costs and threatens to mar coastal views.

As of this week, the Block Island project is the first offshore wind project in the country to receive full funding, and state and federal regulators have already approved it.

The latest funders of the 30-megawatt wind farm include the French bank Mandated Lead Arrangers Societe Generale of Paris and the Ohio-based KeyBank National Association.

At full capacity, the so-called "demonstration" project is expected to supply enough power for 17,200 homes in Rhode Island. The plant will supply energy to Block Island, which has about 1,000 people, and excess power will be sent to the mainland via underwater transmission lines.

Tricia Jedele, the vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Rhode Island, said she's "thrilled" the project has been funded. "It's been widely supported and extensively reviewed for many, many years. It's a testament that offshore wind is coming to New England, and is part of the energy future of the United States," she said. Conservation Law Foundation is an environmental advocacy organization that has been involved with the project's review process since its early stages.

The success of this project should be "applauded despite its size," said Lewis Milford, president of the nonprofit Clean Energy Group. "We need to learn from this experience; we need to get the industry and [the general public] comfortable with the development of this resource," he said.

"I think we are at a make-or-break period [in the United States]. If we are serious, we need to spend the next couple of years focusing on how to make" this industry work, said Milford.

That means setting up more cooperation on policy and funding between states, Milford added. While the federal government is involved with the siting of a project and may provide early funding, the fate of a project rests largely in the hands of state government, he explained.

Deepwater Wind is hoping its small Block Island project helps build public, political and financial goodwill, enabling the company to push forward on a much larger project: Deepwater ONE.

This second project is a roughly 1,000-megawatt offshore wind farm with potentially up to 200 turbines off the coast of New England. The energy from this massive wind farm would go to Long Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

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