RI set to double down on offshore wind power

Source: By Alex Kuffner, The Providence Journal • Posted: Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Ørsted U.S. Offshore Wind owns the wind turbines off Block Island.

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island is set to double down on its commitment to offshore wind power.

The Ocean State became home to the first offshore wind farm in the nation with the completion of the 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm in 2016 and followed up last year with a contract for another 400 megawatts of capacity from the proposed Revolution Wind project to be built southwest of Martha’s Vineyard.

Now, Gov. Gina Raimondo is looking to procure as much as 600 more megawatts of power generated by towering wind turbines that would rise up out of the ocean waters off southern New England.

Her administration announced on Tuesday that National Grid, the state’s main energy utility, is working on a request for proposals from offshore wind developers that is on track to be released early next year.

The Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources is overseeing the drafting of the RFP, which is expected to be submitted for approval to the state Public Utilities Commission this fall. Any contracts that result from the bidding would also have to go before the commission for final approval.

The announcement follows Raimondo’s executive order in January that aims to get all of Rhode Island’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030 — one of the most aggressive climate goals in the country.

As of this summer, the state had developed or signed contracts for 933 megawatts of renewable energy. If no new programs were instituted, Rhode Island would get about 60% of the way to Raimondo’s goal by the end of the decade, according to estimates from consultants working with the state.

The new RFP would push the state up to 82% of the goal, said Nicholas Ucci, commissioner of the state energy office. With continued investments in smaller renewable projects, primarily solar arrays, and as energy-efficiency efforts ramp up, he predicts Rhode Island will be able to meet the target.

“You can see how we can meet the bold goal the governor has set for us,” said Ucci, who is heading up the planning effort to reach the goal, which would mean sweeping changes to the state’s energy portfolio.

Raimondo framed the increased commitment to offshore wind within a broader context.

“In the face of global climate change, Rhode Island must drive toward a cleaner, more affordable and reliable clean energy future,” she said in a statement. “It is critical that we accelerate our adoption of carbon-free resources to power our homes and businesses, while creating clean energy jobs.”

For a state as small as Rhode Island, the amount of energy to be sought through the new procurement is huge. If a single wind farm were to win a contract for the maximum capacity, it would be 20 times the size of the five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm and 50% bigger than the Revolution project. A 600-megawatt wind farm would be able to power about 407,000 homes — or nearly every household in Rhode Island.

Add that hypothetical 600-megawatt project to the 400-megawatt Revolution project and the 30-megawatt Block Island array and nearly two-thirds of the annual electric demand in the state would come from offshore wind.

The announcement, however, comes at a difficult time for the offshore wind industry. After the successful construction of the pilot project about three miles southeast of Block Island, the federal government held an auction for offshore wind leases near Massachusetts and Rhode Island that shattered records for the amount that companies were willing to bid. Back then, in late 2018, it appeared that the industry’s course was all but assured. Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut were all looking to buy offshore wind power to meet their clean energy goals, and the developers would supply it.

But a dispute between commercial fishermen and Vineyard Wind — one of the companies with proposals in the same general location and the first to apply for permits to the federal government — quickly expanded across the industry. Amidst concerns that developers weren’t spacing wind turbines far enough apart to allow for safe navigation by fishing boats, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has held off a final decision on the Vineyard Wind application and has sat on filings by other companies.

Ørsted is one of those still waiting for an answer. The Denmark-based global company, which took over the Block Island Wind Farm after buying its developer, Deepwater Wind, is partnering with Eversource Energy on the Revolution project.

David Hardy, the newly appointed CEO of Ørsted Offshore North America, believes that the speed at which things progress will depend on the upcoming election. A win by Joseph R. Biden Jr., who is a supporter of renewable energy, would be a clear boost for offshore wind. Hardy hopes that if President Trump is reelected, it won’t mean further delays. He argued that Republicans should be able to embrace an industry that will generate jobs and create energy independence.

“We’re all in on offshore wind in the long run,” Hardy said. “We’re continuing to move forward.”

Ucci said he expects a decision on Vineyard Wind from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management in late November or early December, which should break the logjam for other applications. He is optimistic, too, about the industry’s prospects and said a lot can happen between now and 2022, when a contract could be awarded through the new RFP.

Union leaders welcomed the announcement, saying it would create “hundreds of well-paying middle-class jobs” for people in the construction trades.

“This is a unique opportunity that is truly a win all around,” Michael F. Sabitoni, president of the Rhode Island Building & Construction Trades Council, said in a statement.