While Europe has invested increasingly in offshore wind energy in the last quarter century, the US has yet to dip its toe in the water – until now.
When US President Barack Obama rejected the Keystone XL oil pipeline, he took the opportunity to boast about how clean, renewable energy sources have proliferated under his watch.
“Think about it,” Obama said earlier this month. “Since I took office, we’ve doubled the distance our cars will go on a gallon of gas by 2025; tripled the power we generate from the wind; multiplied the power we generate from the sun 20 times over. Our biggest and most successful businesses are going all-in on clean energy.”
Obama heads late this month to Paris to help negotiate a new global climate plan aimed at reducing reliance on fossil fuels and keeping Earth’s temperature from rising dangerously.
While US wind energy capacity has increased from approximately 16,000 megawatts to nearly 60,000 megawatts under Obama, it has all come from land-based turbines.
This, while the US East Coast has what one study called a “Saudi Arabia” of untapped wind resources just off its shores.
Unlike Europe, which has built more than 80 offshore wind farms since 1991, there had not been a single wind farm constructed in US waters – until now.
This summer, platforms were installed about 5 kilometres off the New England community of Block Island, which lies 19 kilometres off the coast of the tiny US state of Rhode Island.
With what company chief Jeff Grybowski calls “steel in the water,” Deepwater Wind’s five-turbine Block Island project is expected to go online in late 2016 with an overall capacity of 30 megawatts, enough to power 17,000 homes.
The project is tiny compared to established European farms or to the first offshore wind farm proposed in the US, the 130-turbine Cape Wind project, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Cape Wind, first proposed in 2001, ran into a headwind of opposition, pitting environmentalists against wealthy vacation homeowners who objected to the sight of wind turbines off their beaches. The project eventually made it through the permitting process, but is yet to be built.
The Block Island farm is a “demonstration project,” despite its hefty price tag of 290 million dollars, raised entirely from private investors.
Though the project has had its share of detractors, a variety of factors made Block Island a more willing candidate for such a venture.
Unlike other East Coast resorts, Block Island does not have an electric cable connecting it to a mainland power source. As a result, the community of about 1,000 residents (which can grow 20-fold during the summer) is dependant on a diesel-fired power plant that requires 3.8 million litres of fuel to be delivered annually via ferry boat.
A few years ago, the island briefly held the dubious distinction of the highest electricity rates in the nation.
The farm will take care of the island’s power needs first – demand seldom exceeds 4 megawatts even during the height of tourist season – and excess electricity will travel through a cable to the mainland grid. The cable would allow for electricity to be delivered to the island cheaper than the current diesel plant, even if the wind isn’t blowing.
Deepwater and two other companies, including Dong Energy of Denmark, have leased tracts from the federal government farther off Rhode Island and Massachusetts for even larger farms, with up to a combined 500 turbines. Other developers are eyeing Maryland and New Jersey.
Proponents say wind development off the US East Coast is especially attractive as the resources are robust and close to population centres.
A recent report by Oceana, an ocean conservation advocacy group, found that the wind resources off the 13 US states along the East Coast could generate 127 gigawatts, approximately equal to what Europe hopes to achieve by 2030.
“Offshore wind could supplant 70 per cent of the East Coast’s fossil-fuel based electricity,” and cut 335 million metric tons of carbon emissions, according to the report.
Europe has built 82 offshore wind farms whose 3,000 turbines have a capacity of more than 10,000 megawatts, with another 4,000 megawatts in the pipeline.
At recent Washington symposium, Deepwater’s Grybowski conceded that US offshore wind development has taken an “excrutiating long period of time.” But Europe’s initial efforts similarly plodded until the sector “exploded” after the first decade.
Now it’s a “big, mature, sophisticated” industry that attracts billions in annual investment. He pointed to the German port of Bremerhaven, which was in decline before being revitalized by the offshore wind services industry.
Georg Maue, first secretary for energy and climate at the German embassy in Washington, explained that offshore wind was a major component of Germany’s “Energiewende” – or energy transition.
The country hopes to generate 40-45 per cent of its electricity through renewable sources by 2025, he said.
The US, in comparison, is taking its first tentative step, off the shores of the smallest town in the smallest state.