R.I.’s Deepwater Wind the focus of national wind energy conference

Source: By Alex Kuffner, Providence Journal • Posted: Wednesday, October 26, 2016

WARWICK — The completion near Block Island this summer of the first offshore wind farm in the nation marks a milestone, but it will mean little if more projects don’t follow.

Developers, suppliers, elected officials and regulators gathered on Tuesday for the first day of a national offshore wind power conference to see what they could learn from the construction of Deepwater Wind’s five-turbine Block Island wind farm, and to discuss larger prospects for the industry.

“We have this incredible resource. And the time really is now,” Abigail Ross Hopper, director of the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said in one of the opening sessions of the conference, organized by the American Wind Energy Association.

With old coal, oil and nuclear power plants closing down, there’s a need for alternatives. The federal government strongly believes that offshore wind power will be a vital part of a new energy mix, both Hopper and Jose Zayas, of the U.S. Department of Energy, told the hundreds in attendance.

“We have recognized that the opportunity is vast,” said Zayas, director of the DOE’s Wind and Water Power Technologies Office.

The opportunity is greatest in the Northeast because of what James Bennett, chief of renewable programs at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, described as a “perfect storm” of circumstances: the region has the biggest energy demand in the nation, it has some of the world’s highest electric rates, and the offshore wind resources are among the best anywhere.

So far, the BOEM has offered commercial leases in 11 areas off the East Coast, from Massachusetts to Virginia. The agency expects to issue leases off New York by the end of the year and off North Carolina in early 2017.

But it’s the waters off New England that offer the greatest potential. The projected capacity factors of offshore wind turbines — the percentage of time they would operate at full power — climb as you travel north from the mid-Atlantic states to Massachusetts, Rhode Island and their neighbors, according to the DOE.

The wind resource in the region helps explain why Providence-based Deepwater sited its first project in Rhode Island waters, and why Deepwater and two other companies — Dong Energy and Offshore MW — are planning much larger projects in nearby waters.

But speakers at the conference still pointed to a host of obstacles for the industry in New England and elsewhere — the high cost of construction chief among them.

“We really need competition to bring down the cost,” said Greg Matzat, senior adviser with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

Policy support is also uneven from state to state. Although Rhode Island and Massachusetts both have strong requirements to ramp up the use of renewable energy and laws that require utilities to sign long-term contracts to buy wind power, that’s not the case in other parts of the country, such as the Southeast.

“The state governments are not big fans of saying, ‘You must do X, Y or Z,'” Katharine Kollins, president of the Southeastern Wind Coalition, said of states in the region.

In contrast, California has one of the most aggressive renewable energy requirements in the nation, which has helped drive development of a proposed 100-turbine project off that state’s coast, said David Hochschild, commissioner with the California Energy Commission.

But he acknowledged that at this point everyone is following Rhode Island’s lead.

“You do not have to be a big state to make a big difference,” Hochschild said. “We’re trying to catch up with you guys.”