America’s First Commercial Offshore Wind Farm Goes Live

Offshore wind is one of the nation’s largest untapped energy sources

By Bobby MagillClimate Central on December 9, 2016

Block Island Wind Farm_RI The Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island is the United States' first-ever offshore wind farm. Credit: Scott Eisen Getty Images

In a few days, the water-bound wind turbines off of Rhode Island’s Block Island are expected to generate electricity commercially for the first time, and New Englanders are set to become the first in U.S. history to use electric power generated from an offshore wind turbine.  

The Block Island Wind Project is the first commercial offshore wind farm ever built in the U.S., and the start of its operation marks the the beginning of a brand new clean energy industry in the United States.

The occasion comes at a time when offshore wind developers and investors await more information about how their fledgling industry will be affected by the incoming Trump administration.

President-elect Donald Trump has been openly critical of renewable energy—especially wind power. He has said climate change is a hoax and has nominated a climate change denier to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Trump has said he opposes an offshore wind farm within view of his Scotland golf course and he has criticized wind turbines as bird killers. Others leading his transition have also been skeptical of renewables, including Thomas Pyle, the head of Trump’s energy transition team.

The offshore wind industry is optimistic about the progress it has made in state legislatures, but because the industry is so dependent on the federal government for expansion, its future is uncertain. That uncertainty comes after a wave of progress made during the Obama administration.

“It’s really tough to know where things stand,” said John Rogers, a climate and energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s a wait-and-see time. We’re looking at what kind of team he’ll assemble. If (Trump is) serious about jobs, he can’t ignore offshore wind.”

Offshore wind is one of America’s largest untapped energy sources. As part of its strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent global warming from exceeding 2°C (3.6°F), the Obama administration unveiled a plan in September to build wind farms off of nearly every U.S. coastline by 2050—enough turbines to generate zero-carbon electricity for more than 23 million homes.

None of that electricity is being generated today. Until now, the U.S. wind energy industry has watched European countries build offshore wind turbines by the thousands as efforts to build wind farms off the coast of the U.S. stalled.

In 2009, the Obama administration began changing that by leasing large swaths of the East Coast’s continental shelf to offshore wind developers. Since then, federal government lease sales have been held for areas off the coasts of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware. New York is next in line for a lease sale this month, with a large offshore wind farm proposed 11 miles off the coast of Long Island.

Once it is operational, the success of the Block Island Wind Project will prove that offshore wind power can be done in the U.S., said Steve Pike, CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a publicly funded state agency that conducts offshore wind technology research.

The project’s only remaining hurdle is final approval from New England’s electric power grid operator. Approval is expected this week with Block Island’s commercial operation likely to follow “in a few days,” Chris Van Beek, president of Block Island Wind Project developer Deepwater Wind, said Wednesday.

What’s next for offshore wind developers partly depends on any changes the Trump administration makes to the federal government’s policy on leasing and permitting for wind farms, said Fara Courtney, an independent offshore wind consultant and founder of the U.S. Offshore Wind Collaborative.

The federal government designates wind energy development areas off of all U.S. coastlines and leases those areas to private developers. It also provides easements and rights of way for new wind farms, and the U.S. Department of Energy conducts research and development on offshore wind technology, she said.

Rogers said the Trump administration could also influence future offshore wind development by attracting investors or driving them away.

“I think what the Obama administration did well was signal clearly that offshore wind was a technology we wanted to bring into our energy mix,” Rogers said.

There are so many unknowns about how the Trump administration will support offshore wind development that the industry is focusing almost solely on the progress it can make at the local level, Courtney said.

“We’re at the point where developers have leases — they’ve secured them, they have site control,” Courtney said. “We have market mechanisms in place now being developed at the state level.”

The state leader is Massachusetts, where Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed legislation in August requiring the state’s utilities to obtain 1,600 megawatts of electricity from offshore wind farms within the next decade—enough electricity to power 320,000 homes. Three areas off Massachusetts’ coast have been leased for wind projects.

Maryland is another champion of offshore wind, passing a law in 2013 that would subsidize offshore wind projects with up to $1.9 billion worth of renewable energy credits. Two offshore wind farms are proposed for the state for open water that has already been leased from the federal government.

U.S. Wind plans to build 187 turbines off the coast of Ocean City, Md., and Deepwater Wind announced in November that it will be building a new wind farm four times the size of its Block Island Project for the same area. Both companies plan to have at least some of their turbines twirling by 2022.

Jeremy Firestone, director of the Center for Carbon-free Power Integration at the University of Delaware, said the Obama administration’s strategy has been to make offshore wind areas already leased to developers irreversible by the Trump administration as long as the projects have state support.

Some offshore wind developers seem unphased by the prospect of a hostile Trump administration, Pike said.

“Developers seem to be going about their usual business insofar as the three leased areas in Massachusetts are concerned,” he said, adding that he is optimistic about the direction of the industry despite the political climate.

“I would imagine that the economic development opportunity might be attractive to any administration,” Pike said. “This is an opportunity to create a new industry in the U.S., which should create jobs both in the nearer term, which would be the supply chain in the development process, as well as the longer term. It’s also American-made energy.”

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