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    Local Columns
    Thursday, July 18, 2024

    The Block Island wind farm has largely shut down

    The wind was filling the flag at the Southeast Light on Block Island on July 31 but not turning the blades on the offshore turbine. (David Collins/The Day)
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    Folks on Block Island have become accustomed to showing off their five-turbine wind farm, which you can see from much of the small island, the giant blades usually tumbling around on the horizon.

    And Ørsted, the Danish multinational utility that bought the farm from the wind company established by Rhode Island political insiders, likes to use it as a showpiece, one of America's first functioning offshore wind farms.

    And so I can understand why no one wants to talk about how four of the farm's five turbines have, without any public notice, stopped running this summer. Islanders say the turbine blades stopped turning several weeks ago, even on windy days.

    I spent the better part of a week trying to learn why and, after many not-returned phone calls and emails, I finally got a statement from a Rhode Island public relations firm that called the shutdown "ongoing routine summer maintenance" that is expected to continue for "the next few weeks."

    It was an unsatisfying explanation.

    Any potential problems with the turbines could be a black eye for the model wind farm, which is already going to cost electric customers more money than originally estimated because the underground cable to the mainland wasn't properly installed and has to be reburied.

    For a while, warning flags were placed on the main swimming beaches on Block Island, where the cable was becoming exposed. Yikes.

    More troubling, the reburying of the cable, which was supposed to happen in the spring, has been postponed because of engineering problems, and who knows what the final cost and solution might be.

    The last estimate to rebury the cable was $30 million, to be passed on to electric customers, but that was released before the new problems were disclosed in the spring.

    I can understand why Ørsted and the other wind company contenders jockeying for new development up and down the Eastern Seaboard might be worried about bad press for the Block Island system, given the growing opposition to wind farms from the fishing industry, consumer activists and coastal communities where cables are proposed to come ashore.

    And that makes me surprised at the poor response I got from Ørsted when asking about Block Island.

    No one wanted to talk about it, although everyone involved agreed it was Ørsted's responsibility to explain what's going on.

    A spokesman for National Grid, which owns the cable from the island to the mainland, said the wind turbine shutdown isn't impacting the power supply and referred all questions to Ørsted.

    I couldn't get anyone from the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources, despite days of messages left for the communications manager and others, to respond.

    I had a nice chat with the president of the Block Island Power Company, who said he doesn't know why the turbines are out of service and suggested Ørsted may not say because it considers the information proprietary.

    The power supply on the island is not impacted, he said, because electricity now comes from the cable from the mainland.

    Getting Ørsted to answer media questions is a real challenge. All the phone numbers on its page for media calls are European, in Denmark.

    I thought Ørsted had promised to open an office in New London. It hasn't. You would think the company could at least have easily available U.S. telephone numbers for its media staff.

    I did finally get an email from Meaghan Wims of the public relations firm Duffy & Shanley of Providence, who identified herself as an Ørsted spokesperson.

    Part of the work of the "routine" summer maintenance, she said in the email, is repair of "stress lines" identified by GE. She said a risk assessment showed the turbines are structurally sound and the repairs should be finished in coming weeks.

    That doesn't sound routine.

    I didn't get any definitive answers when I wrote back to ask more about the shutdown and why more than a month of maintenance and repairs could be considered normal. She also wouldn't say how much the repairs are costing.

    My sense is that there is more trouble with the turbines run from Denmark than anyone wants us to know. But we may learn more about how long the shutdown will really last as the summer rolls on.

    After all, there's no hiding the fact from Block Islanders that those blades aren't turning, and everyone there will know whether or when they do start up again.

    This is the opinion of David Collins.


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