Could Block Island wind farm be first and last?

It is amazing how commitments to reducing carbon emissions and helping the nation become energy independent can quickly dissolve when generating renewable energy involves altering the view, ever so slightly, of seven-figure ocean-side homes.

Day Staff Writer Judy Benson recently visited Block Island where three miles off the island coastline construction is underway for what will be the nation’s first offshore wind farm. That it is the first, in the year 2015, says volumes about the nation’s lack of commitment to renewable energy and the ability of opponents to use our regulatory and legal systems to block progress.

Built in Denmark, Europe’s first offshore wind farm dates to 1991. That country gets 30 percent of its electricity from offshore turbines. According to industry reports, managing and maintaining Europe’s 64 offshore wind farms employ 58,000 people.

Compared to that scale, the Deepwater Wind project off Block Island is a rather modest undertaking. The five wind turbines, rising about 650 feet tall, will generate 30 megawatts of electricity. That is enough to meet the island’s electricity needs without burning an ounce of fossil fuel, with plenty of energy reserved to ship via underwater cable to the mainland.

That 22-mile power cable will also carry fiber-optic line that will give Block Island its first reliable high-speed Internet service.

Even with work underway — and completion expected by the end of 2016 — Ms. Benson found plenty of opponents and those upset that their views will be besmirched by the spin of the energy generating turbines.

It is difficult to understand why some consider the turbines, relatively small objects on the horizon at that distance, to be an eyesore. One can just as easily view these spinning, high-tech windmills as an attractive testament to humankind's commitment to progress without further ravishing Earth's limited resources. It’s a matter of perspective. Many visitors to the island will view them with fascination.

In any event, avoiding them will only require a slight rotation of the head.

About 1 million gallons of diesel fuel is brought by trucks via ferries to Block Island annually, fueling the plant that provides the island's electricity. Not only does that create greenhouse gases, it also results in excessively high electric rates on the island. Island business and residents expect to see a roughly one-third reduction in their electric bills.

It is remarkable, in an unfortunate way, that this will be the nation's first offshore wind project. Deepwater Wind began the permitting process in 2008. Cape Wind, a much larger wind farm proposed off Nantucket — 130 turbines scattered across 24 square miles of Nantucket Sound five miles off Cape Cod — has been under debate for 15 years. Despite repeated legal victories, and support from the Obama administration, it might be about to crumble under the weight of the interminable litigation filed by well-financed opponents on the Cape.

In May, National Grid and Eversource Energy, unnerved by the unending legal fights and delays, announced they were canceling long-terms contracts to buy 77.5 percent of the electricity Cape Wind was to generate. Without that commitment, financing the massive project is impossible.

Deepwater Wind’s Block Island developers see it as a demonstration project to pave the way for larger wind farms. But if the “nimbo” crowd has its way — “not in my back ocean” — it may instead serve as an example of what the country could have accomplished to generate clean energy, but didn’t.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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