Small step a giant leap for offshore wind…

Source: By Alex Kuffner, Providence Journal Staff Writer • Posted: Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Deepwater Wind staff check out a docked barge carrying foundation support pieces for the wind turbine towers being built off Block Island.

Deepwater Wind staff check out a docked barge carrying foundation support pieces for the wind turbine towers being built off Block Island. The five-turbine project is expected to be followed by much larger installations. 

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A radio was playing somewhere in the vast warehouse, but the music was drowned out by a noisy symphony of hammering, welding and grinding.

These were the sounds of the first offshore wind farm in the United States being built.

Last April, inside a hangar-size building tucked in a corner of the Quonset Business Park, workers with Specialty Diving Services were making parts of the massive steel foundations for the five wind turbines that Providence-based Deepwater Wind plans to install in ocean waters off Block Island.

The work marked the start of construction in Rhode Island on a project that had been years in the making and will take another year to complete.

The main pieces of the latticework foundations were being built in Louisiana by a company with long experience in the Gulf of Mexico’s offshore oil and gas industry. No business in Rhode Island has that type of ability, but Specialty Diving, a Quonset-based marine construction firm that builds bridges and piers, was more than capable of fabricating the custom-made, heavy-duty ladders, rails and platforms that were to be attached to the foundations.

Amid wisps of smoke and the oddly pleasant smell of burning metal, iron worker Don Rosbotton used an arc welder to join together two pieces of a circular “flange access platform” that other construction workers will stand on when they bolt Deepwater’s turbines in place sometime in 2016.

With 29 years in the trade, Rosbotton had worked on the Newport and Jamestown bridges and was a foreman on the project to build the new transportation hub at T.F. Green Airport a few years ago, but the significance of the Deepwater job was not lost on him.

“I’ve been on some great projects,” he says, “but this is different.”

Although there are thousands of wind turbines dotting the ocean waters around northern Europe and dozens more off the coasts of China and Japan, the United States has none.

Proposals to tap the ocean winds along the East Coast stretch back to the early 2000s, but in the race to build the nation’s first offshore wind farm, Deepwater Wind now stands alone.

If all goes smoothly, by fall 2016, five towering wind turbines arranged in a curve along the southeast coast of Block Island will be spinning away. They will produce enough electricity for 17,000 homes, feeding it first to the residents of Block Island, a speck in the ocean that currently relies on dirty diesel generators for energy, and then, through an underwater transmission cable, to the New England power grid.

The price tag is about $225 million to build the 30-megawatt wind farm, an additional $118 million in permitting, legal and other costs, as well as another $108 million for the cable.

And in what could be seen in symbolic terms, they will also eclipse in height the twin cooling towers at Brayton Point Power Station, in Somerset, Mass., the largest coal-burning power plant in New England. The 52-year-old plant, which looms over Mount Hope Bay, is scheduled to close a year after the Block Island Wind Farm goes into operation — a tidy encapsulation of the region’s push to transition from fossil fuels to clean sources of renewable energy.

When the Block Island Wind Farm is fully commissioned, it will complete a nearly decade-long effort by the state to capture the winds off the Rhode Island coast.

In January 2006 then-Gov. Donald Carcieri unveiled a plan to develop enough wind power to supply 15 percent of Rhode Island’s electricity needs. The focus of a feasibility study released the following year fell on offshore sites.

Among the potential sites for wind farms off the Rhode Island coast identified by the study was a swath of waters around the southern end of Block Island that was relatively shallow and within state jurisdiction, ensuring a predictable permitting process.

In September 2008, a five-member state panel selected Deepwater Wind, a little-known New Jersey company that had never put up a wind turbine on land or at sea, to develop the site.

As part of its pitch, Deepwater, which eventually moved to Providence, committed to use the state-owned Quonset Business Park as a staging area, promising that as many jobs as possible would stay in Rhode Island. It proved to be a key selling point in a state that at the time had the highest jobless rate in the nation.

The development plan set a goal of building a huge wind farm of up to 200 turbines in Rhode Island Sound that could supply power to multiple states in the Northeast. But first would come a small demonstration wind farm off Block Island, a project aimed at proving that an ocean wind farm could be built in the United States, convincing bankers that the industry was a good bet and perhaps luring European turbine makers to this side of the Atlantic.

The project was also designed to get in the water fast, giving Deepwater the advantage over other offshore wind developers and positioning Rhode Island as a hub for the industry. Even so, when the Block Island Wind Farm was conceived six years ago, anyone associated with it would have been hard-pressed to believe that it would be first in the water.

By then, Energy Management, a Boston-based development firm, had been working for seven years on Cape Wind, a groundbreaking and controversial project planned for the waters off Massachusetts. It was the first offshore wind farm proposed in the United States and most observers expected it to be the first one built.

But that proposal to install 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound was already mired in regulatory delays and court battles with a dogged and deep-pocketed opposition group. The problems for Cape Wind would only worsen in the following years.A year ago, after Energy Management failed to reach critical milestones to tie up financing for the $2.5-billion project, electric utilities National Grid and NStar pulled out of long-term contracts to buy power from the wind farm. Without the revenue that those agreements guarantee, the chances of securing loans to build the wind farm are slim.Meanwhile, Deepwater tied up its financing without a hitch and a contract with National Grid remains in place despite criticism that the starting price for electricity is more than double the blended rate that most Rhode Islanders pay for power.There are currently 11 offshore projects in development in 10 states, according to Tom Vinson, a vice president at the American Wind Energy Association, who says the nation’s offshore wind potential is “vast.”

But none except Deepwater are close to construction.Other steps in the building process for the Block Island Wind Farm followed quickly after that first burst of activity in North Kingstown.At its work yards in Louisiana, Gulf Island Fabrication finished building the enormous steel foundations for the wind farm over the summer and shipped them to Rhode Island on a string of barges in June and July.On July 26, at the project site about 3 miles southeast of Block Island, crews lowered into place the first foundation section.

The next day, aboard a boat that pulled alongside the structure, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell hailed a moment for the offshore wind industry that marked what she and other officials described as “steel in the water.”“A place like Block Island, which could only burn dirty diesel fuel, now will have the opportunity for clean, renewable energy,” Jewell said, as she stood at the bow of a ferry that rocked in the swells off the tiny island. “And they’re going to show the rest of the country how that can be done.”Deepwater was set to finish installing the foundations this fall.

The turbines, which are being made in France by the Paris-based conglomerate Alstom, will be mounted at the end of next summer.Deepwater Wind CEO Jeffrey Grybowski says his company had no choice but to go out of state for most of the work on the project because the Northeast has no offshore energy industry.“This is highly specialized stuff, and we simply don’t have the capacity to do it in Rhode Island today,” Grybowski said.The Block Island project is expected to create 330 temporary construction jobs, mainly for Rhode Islanders, and Deepwater has promised 800 more with the bigger wind farm.