First Offshore Wind in the Western Hemisphere, Right Off Our Shores. What Does it Mean?

, senior energy analyst, Clean Energy | November 3, 2016, 9:45 am EST
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Last week I took my son and friends to behold a brand new energy source that has sprung up just off the coast: the first offshore wind turbines in the United States—actually, the first anywhere in the Americas. This is a moment worth savoring, and definitely worth sharing with the next generation.

The next generation: Offshore wind and our children at the dawn of a new era (Credit: A. Kommareddi)

The next generation: Offshore wind, Block Island, and our children at the dawn of a new era (Credit: A. Kommareddi)

Offshore wind power has been a long time in coming. The first US project proposal came 15 years ago. Europe now has 25 years of offshore wind experience under its belt. The project we visited was proposed in 2007.

This is a technology, though, that is worth the wait. Offshore wind resources are powerful—and plentiful. They can be found close to major cities and other places all up and down the coast, where we need the power. And they’re more often available at times that match when we most need energy, like on summer afternoons.

Ocean power, Ocean State

Offshore wind energy of a different sort was palpable in the industry’s annual offshore wind conference that I attended later in the week, held in Rhode Island. The conference was full of Europeans with boatloads (and decades) of experience, entrepreneurs and advocates who are champing at the bit to make much more happen in the US, and politicians and other decision makers who are working to create the right conditions and remove stumbling blocks for the technology.

The Ocean State just happens to also be the site of that very first Western Hemisphere project. The project, off the coast of Rhode Island’s Block Island, consists of five wind turbines adding up to 30 megawatts.

That’s modest, at a time when offshore wind farms elsewhere in the world include dozens or even hundreds of turbines. But those turbines will produce far more electricity than the people of Block Island alone can use. So part of the project is connecting the island to the mainland and allowing those beautiful electrons to flow into the state’s and region’s electricity grid. That means the project is also offering bill savings for islanders who have heretofore been completely dependent on local generators fueled with imported diesel.

Grace and power, and it's all ours. (Credit: N. Bolgen)

Grace and power, and it’s ours at last (Credit: N. Bolgen)

Beyond the Ocean State

Even more importantly, the pioneering project’s implications stretch far beyond its megawatts and electrons.

At last week’s offshore wind conference, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo expressed her deep belief in the “job-creating abilities” of new industries and innovators, like offshore wind and its business proponents. The developer of the Block Island wind farm suggested that we’re “finally at the start of something much, much bigger.” The president of the American Wind Energy Association said that this is “the dawn of a new era” in American history.

And, indeed, the path for much more offshore wind in the US is clearer than ever:

Governments are acting, too. Massachusetts’s new energy law will drive the development of offshore wind capacity equaling more than 50 Block Island projects over the next 15 years. New York sees offshore wind as a really important piece of how it’s going to make good on its new commitment to get 50% of its electricity from renewable energy by 2030.

Generation beyond our generation

All of that—the present, the future, the promise—made my son and me glad to get to visit Block Island last week.

As our party completed the two-hours-by-car-one-hour-by-ferry-and-then-bike trek to the island’s southeastern bluffs and stood looking out at the five graceful towers rising from the Atlantic just three miles away, I thought about how watershed-y this moment was. When I first laid my hands on a solar panel, many years ago, the solar industry was underway around the world; small, yes, but present in niche applications. When I first got involved with land-based wind power, a decade ago, it was nowhere near where it is now, but already a force in the US power sector.

But for offshore wind, and for us, this one project represents the difference between no offshore wind power in the Americas, and yes offshore wind power. An infinite bump-up, ratio-wise, from 0 megawatts to something much greater than zero. One small step for New England (maybe), but a giant leap for all Americans (definitely).

This is certainly only the beginning of our offshore wind work as a society. As one offshore wind expert put it, “If 2016 is the year US offshore wind arrived, 2017 will determine if it thrives.” We’ll have to keep pushing to remove barriers, to drop costs, to create jobs and protect wildlife, to make offshore wind a real and vibrant piece of our mix of electricity options.

But for now, this is a moment worth relishing. It’s not often that you get to be present at a First like this, at the birth of a whole new way of transforming a major sector of our economy, and to get to take the next generation with you. It’s a trip worth making.

Beauty and the beach (Credit: J. Rogers)

Beauty and the beach (spot the wind turbines) (Credit: J. Rogers)

John Rogers

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  • solodoctor

    Thanks for an informative shout out about off shore wind power! I had not realized before that so many projects are in the pipeline along the Atlantic coast and even the Great Lakes (where I grew up). I hope similar projects are being planned for the Pacific coast. There are plenty of places along Washington, Oregon, and California where I live that could provide plenty of ‘electrons.’ Are any being considered?

    • ucsjrogers

      Fine question, Solo. The Pacific Coast is different (in so many ways…) — in this case, because the Outer Continental Shelf drops off so suddenly, instead of providing lots of shallow water for offshore wind turbines. That means that offshore wind power in the Pacific is going to involve floating wind turbines.

      That’s a technology that’s still making its way onto the market. But there was a lot of discussion about it at last week’s conference, and the first real project — a five-turbine one off Scotland — will be underway soon. And you’re right — the Pacific potential is pretty impressive. So this is an area worth keeping an eye on.

      – John

  • FLWrite

    Only thing better is decentralized power generation, i.e., solar panels on my roof and no grid or corporations required.

    • ucsjrogers

      You’re right, FLW, that some renewables lend themselves to decentralization in a way that other technologies don’t. The answer, I think, lies in a mixture of technologies and scales, of ownership structures and financing approaches. Offshore wind is so powerful, and so present, for coastal states (and there are a lot of ’em). So I’m in favor of pushing on all these fronts as we move down this clean energy path. Thanks. – John