Offshore wind farm a green-energy milestone

Source: By Bill Loveless, USA Today • Posted: Monday, August 22, 2016


Crews install one of five turbines of the Deepwater Wind project off the Rhode Island coast.(Photo: Deepwater Wind)

The first offshore wind energy farm in the USA is up and nearly ready to go, marking a new chapter in the nation’s changing electricity grid.

Thursday, workers finished installing the last of five turbines off Rhode Island’s coast, a little more than a year after the Providence-based developer Deepwater Wind first put steel in the water.

“A lot’s happened over the last year,” said Jeff Grybowski,  CEO of Deepwater Wind. “I feel like the industry has really turned the corner.”

As Grybowski spoke, a Norwegian ship called the Brave Tern and two other vessels mounted General Electric turbine nacelles — the housing for the generating equipment — on 270-foot towers in state waters 3 miles southeast of Block Island.

Now that all the turbines are installed, the next step is commissioning and testing the equipment, which will take several weeks.

Once that’s done, the turbines will begin generating power to Block Island and the mainland via a 20-mile cable installed by National Grid, the utility that provides electric power to Rhode Island.

The $300 million wind farm is relatively small, with 30 megawatts of capacity, enough to power about 17,000 homes in Rhode Island, including dwellings on Block Island, where costly diesel fuel is used to keep the lights on.

The farm’s impact may be much larger as it demonstrates the potential for offshore wind energy while coastal states such as Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York  look increasingly to renewable energy to reduce their carbon emissions.

“It’s really difficult for a utility to say, ‘We’d like to see you build a couple of hundred megawatts’ if no one has even been successful building 1 megawatt offshore,” Grybowski said. “Utilities have seen the success of the Block Island project. That makes them comfortable with this new resource.”

Grybowski is gearing up for his company’s next big undertaking, one with the potential for up to 200 turbines with 1 gigawatt of capacity in 256 square miles of federal waters 30 miles southeast of Montauk, N.Y.

The Long Island Power Authority recently announced plans to acquire 90 megawatts of capacity from 15 Deepwater Wind turbines in the area, though the financial terms  need to be worked out.

If the deal is struck, Deepwater Wind could supply the electricity by 2022, including two battery units to store power for peak demand.

Grybowski sees the potential for deals with utilities in Massachusetts, where Gov. Charlie Baker signed energy legislation in July that includes a provision for 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2027.

Grybowski’s company is hardly alone in seeking  opportunities to provide the region with electricity from offshore waters. Two other developers — the mega-wind farm builder Dong Energy of Denmark and New Jersey-based OffshoreMW — hold federal leases in waters adjacent to those designated for Deepwater Wind.

“I think offshore wind is going to be a very large component of the new power plants that we’re going to build here in the Northeast going forward over the next several decades because it’s a big resource and it’s a clean resource,” Grybowski said.

The potential for offshore wind energy spreads beyond the Northeast. The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) awarded 11 commercial wind energy leases off the Atlantic coast, though project development is much further behind the Block Island venture in other areas.

There’s interest on the West Coast, too, despite deep waters that make projects off California, Oregon and Washington  more challenging than those off the East Coast.

Offshore wind resources could contribute up to four times the generating capacity of the  U.S. electric system, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

As he prepares to move ahead, Grybowski wants to employ more U.S.-based contractors in building wind energy farms and rely less on firms from Europe, where wind farms dot offshore waters.

The Block Island Wind Farm has given a lift to the Rhode Island economy, employing about 300 state residents  in the project, from ironworkers to scientists, Grybowski said.

Workers travel to the turbines aboard a $4 million catamaran built in Bristol, R.I., by Blount Boats and operated by Rhode Island Fast Ferry.

“They see this as not just one project but an opportunity to get into a new field,” Grybowski said of local contractors. “It’s opening up a new industry for them.”

Bill Loveless — @bill_loveless on Twitter — is a veteran energy journalist and podcast host in Washington. He is the former anchor of the TV program Platts Energy Week.