Up Close with America’s New Renewable Energy: Experiencing the Now-ness of Offshore Wind

October 23, 2017 | 12:55 pm
Block Island Wind Farm (Credit: E. Spanger-Siegfried)
John Rogers
Energy Campaign Analytic Lead

On a recent clear day, colleagues and I hopped on a boat for a look at our nation’s energy future. From right up close, offshore wind turbines make quite an impression. The biggest impression, though? That the future of energy… is actually right now.

Seeing is believing

The boat tour gave us a chance to be out on the water in the vicinity of the turbines of Rhode Island’s Block Island Wind Farm, the first offshore wind facility in the Americas. And what first stood out in that trip was… well, the wind turbines.

Block Island Wind Farm: Seeing is believing. Photo: J. Rogers.

Sight. Yes, these things are no shrinking violets. The mechanical engineer in me is drawn inexorably to the stats that define that heft, facts about the size of each the five 6-megawatt turbines that make up the wind farm. About the lengths/heights—of the towers (360 feet up from the ocean’s surface), the foundation (90 feet down to the seabed, then 200 feet beyond), the blades (240 feet from hub to tip). About the weight—1500 tons for the foundation, 800 more for the tower, the nacelle (the box up top), and the blades.

The poet in me, if there were one, would wax lyrical (and poetical) about the visuals of the trip. I can at least say this: I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this beholder was quite taken with the towering figures just feet away as we motored by, and, as far as I could tell, my fellow travelers/beholders shared that sentiment.

The turbines don’t just look solid and mechanical and useful. They look like art—graceful, kinetic sculptures rising from the briny depths.

Beyond seeing, and seeing beyond

This tour wasn’t just about seeing, though. With a trip this exciting, you want to bring multiple senses to bear, and so we did.

Offshore wind power – Big, bold, beautiful, and ready for its close-up. Photo: E. Spanger-Siegfried.

Sound. Surprisingly, given the size of each installation, sound was not really a piece of the turbine-gazing experience. That is, I could maybe hear the blades turning, but only barely, over the noise of the ship’s engine and, particularly, over the sound from the very wind that was exciting those blade rotations.

Scent. The scent on the water was of the sea air, which I don’t normally get and which I’d welcome any day. When you get close enough to see the bolts and welds on the foundations and towers, though, these wind turbines smell like jobs.

The workmanship that went into these marvels is clear. Looking at each, you can easily imagine the workers, local, abroad, and in-between, that made this possible.

While many of the major components for this first-in-the-nation wind farm came from factories in established offshore wind farm markets, it was welders in Louisiana who gave birth to the foundation, using manufacturing skills wisely transferred from the offshore oil/gas industry. And the pieces all came together courtesy of ironworkers, electricians, and more in Rhode Island—some 300 local workers, says project developer Deepwater Wind.

Offshore wind admirers. Photo: J. Rogers.

Touch. Much as I would have enjoyed getting right on the turbines (and maybe even on top?), our passage by understandably left us a few tens of feet short of that. (Next time.)

But my fellow travelers and I were clearly touched by the experience of seeing such power right up close, could easily feel the transformative energy of each turbine.

Taste. That leaves one more sense. This trip wasn’t just about the taste of the salty air. It communicated the sense that what we got on the water on that recent fall day was just a taste of what’s to come. Maybe, then, we can couple that with a sixth sense: a sense of optimism.

Because it’s hard to stand there on the rising-falling deck, with the sun, the wind, and the sea spray, with those powerful sculptures so close by, and not get a sense that you’re witnessing a special something. A something that goes beyond five turbines, big as they are, and beyond 30 megawatts and the 17,000 homes that they can power. A sense that’s there much more beyond.

One of the local leaders from the electricians union (IBEW) captured this beyond idea well in talking about the project from the point of view of jobs, and the economic development potential of this technology:

Offshore wind: The future is present. Photo: J. Rogers.

“The real prize was not the five turbines… The real prize is what’s going to come.”

When it comes to offshore wind turbines, the what’s-to-come seems as big and powerful as each turbine multiplied many-fold. We seem poised for so much more, not just abroad, but right here at home.

A video of the Block Island project from proud project financier Citi can get you close to this particular project, and this cool 360 version of the turbines courtesy of the New York Times can get you even closer (just hold on tight!).

But for readers in this country, the fact that we’re poised for much more means that a chance to visit a wind farm in waters near you could be coming soon.

And if you do get there, use as many senses as you can. Offshore wind power is an experience worth getting close to, and opening up to.

The print version of Citi’s Block Island promotion includes the tagline “On a clear day you can see the future”. But getting up close to offshore wind turbines makes it clear that this particular energy technology is here and now. That it’s so ready for the big time. That yesterday’s energy future is today’s energy present.

So go ahead, on clear days, or cloudy, rain or shine: See, hear, smell, touch, and taste that energy-future-in-the-present. And celebrate.

About the author

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John Rogers is energy campaign analytic lead at the Union of Concerned Scientists with expertise in clean energy technologies and policies and a focus on solar, wind, and natural gas. He co-managed the UCS-led Energy and Water in a Warming World Initiative, a multi-year program aimed at raising awareness of the energy-water connection, particularly in the context of climate change, and motivating and informing effective low-carbon and low-water energy solutions.