Beneath towering turbines, US energy secretary says Block Island Wind Farm is nation’s model

Source: By Antonia Noori Farzan, The Providence Journal • Posted: Monday, June 5, 2023

THREE MILES OFF THE SOUTHEAST COAST OF BLOCK ISLAND – The Block Island Wind Farm should serve as a model for the rest of the country, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told reporters during a tour of the first-in-the-nation offshore wind facility on Friday.

“We want to replicate this, even bigger, all up and down the Atlantic seaboard, but also in the Pacific and in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Great Lakes,” Granholm said, standing aboard a ferry that rolled gently in the ocean swells. “We want to be able to generate clean energy all across America.”

Granholm was joined Friday by elected officials including Gov. Dan McKee, Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, and Rep. Seth Magaziner, as well as representatives from Ørsted, which owns the wind farm. Only three of the five turbines were spinning: Routine maintenance will be taking place throughout the summer, while there are lighter winds and calmer conditions, Ørsted representatives said.

Ørsted is also behind the South Fork Wind Farm, which is under construction. Spokeswoman Meaghan Wims said the project is approaching “steel in the water” – the wind-farm equivalent of “cranes in the sky” or “shovels in the ground.” In fact, as the Rhode Island Fast Ferry sped toward Block Island, theLiving Stone, a cable-laying ship deployed on the South Fork project, could be seen on the horizon.

The challenges ahead: Getting fishermen and Gulf states on board with offshore wind

Asked about fishermen’s fears that wind farms could have a negative impact on marine life, Granholm said Rhode Island offered a road map for addressing those concerns. “I think what was done in the Block Island example was to bring the fishing community in at the outset so that everyone benefits,” she said.

The tour served as an opportunity to tout the positive spillover effects of wind farms – for instance, the boost to the boatbuilding industry.

As Granholm took in the view, a 12-passenger crew transfer vessel pulled up to one of the turbines. The small, ferry-like catamaran was built by Blount in Warren and is specially designed to make it safer and easier for maintenance workers to step off the boat and onto the turbines, Ørsted officials said. The company has commissioned five more of the vessels, which are being built at Blount and at Senesco in North Kingstown.

Back on land at a roundtable discussion in Quonset, members of the congressional delegation acknowledged that wind farms might be a harder sell in the Gulf of Mexico, where fossil fuels have historically been a boon the economy.

“The notion that we’re going to go to Gulf state legislatures and governors and say, ‘We want you to transition from oil and gas to offshore wind, and you get 37 cents on the dollar from offshore oil and gas, and you get nothing from offshore wind,’ is a terrible incentive,” Whitehouse said, noting that he has introduced a bill to address that imbalance.

On the plus side, Magaziner said, “I tell my colleagues from the Gulf states that there has never been an offshore wind spill.”

Before leaving to meet with local students, Granholm said it was an exciting time for the industry.

“I hope you all feel the moment that we are in,” she said. “If you ever wanted to work this space, this is the time.”

Want to tour the Block Island Wind Farm?

Curiosity about the Block Island Wind Farm has generated something of a “cottage industry,” Wims said. While Ørsted doesn’t typically offer tours to the general public, there are now charter companies in Block Island and Galilee that will take small groups out to see the turbines.

If you have your own boat, there are no restrictions preventing you from cruising through the wind farm. (In fact, fishermen can often be found near the turbines.) And if you’d prefer to view the turbines from land, the best spot is Southeast Light on Block Island.