Continuity Energy Environment

America’s first offshore wind energy makes landfall in Rhode Island

Offshore wind works for Block Island, where the economics of fossil fuels no longer makes sense. Can it also be a key part of the energy mix for the coastal U.S.?

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.

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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. 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.

Block Island Wind Farm The Resilience Post
Block Island’s offshore wind farm will reduce risk and cost of electricity production.

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. 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.

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The question now is whether Block Island’s wind turbines and others being planned along the U.S. coast will prove the long-term value of offshore wind power.

For the moment, offshore wind in the U.S. is only cost-effective in special cases like Block Island. And even that project only came to fruition because it was willed into existence by Rhode Island politicians against the objections of various critics. When the Deepwater Wind contract was approved by the state government in 2010, ratepayers on the mainland, the state’s attorney general and the environmental group Conservation Law Foundation all sued, citing the high cost and alleged strong arm tactics employed to get the project approved. The state’s Supreme Court approved the project in 2014, but only after expressing hope that the turbines would prove as beneficial for Rhode Island as the controversial 1867 purchase of Alaska, known at the time as Seward’s folly, was for the nation.


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