Environment, labor groups see bright future in Block Island wind farm
Block Island, R.I. — As the gentle sea breeze kept the blades steadily spinning, a boatload of labor and environmental advocates sidled up to the huge steel machines they said represent the future for economic growth, climate change mitigation and wildlife protection all at once.
“We feel like offshore wind is the most wildlife-friendly of all energy types in the U.S.,” said Miles Grant, spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation, which organized a boat tour of the Block Island Wind Farm on Tuesday.
Catherine Bowes, senior manager for climate and energy for the wildlife federation, said the five-turbine project, which is now supplying power to the island and sending surplus energy to the mainland, demonstrates that renewable energy projects can be built to benefit the environment and the economy at the same time. Her organization worked with wind farm builder Deepwater Wind over the eight-year development and permitting process so that the siting and construction would do the least harm to wildlife.
The transition from pollution-emitting fossil fuel energy to renewable energy, she said, is spawning alliances between environmental and labor groups that will benefit all of New England. All six New England states will use the wind energy supplied to the regional grid and gain skilled jobs needed to create and maintain it. More than 300 local unionized workers were employed in the construction, according to Scott Duhamel of the R.I. Building and Construction Trades Council.
“In New England, we import everything. We don’t have oil or gas or coal,” Bowes said. “Here’s an opportunity to break that cycle, to produce our own power and be self-reliant.”
The Block Island project is the first offshore wind farm in the United States, but several more projects are in the works along the East Coast where power is most needed, she said. Because offshore wind projects typically are located about 12 miles from the shore, effects on people and wildlife are minimized, she said.
“Around the world there are 3,500 of these turning. We’re just getting into the game, and we’ve got some catching up to do,” Bowes said. “This really is the beginning.”
Costs of producing wind energy, said Matt Morrissey, vice president of Deepwater Wind, have taken a downward turn and are now on track to achieve parity with fossil fuels in a decade. In fact, the company’s next project, slated to be built off the South Fork of Long Island, won a competitive process with fossil fuel producers based on a lower price for the energy, he said. On Block Island, he added, residents have received their first utility bills for power from the wind farm, paying an average of $100 per month instead of the $180 per month they had been paying for power from the island's diesel fuel generating plant, which has now been shut down.
“Right now we’re producing 16 megawatts of power, in this gentle breeze,” Morrissey said.
George Nee, president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, said the wind farm is a testament to what can happen when labor and environmental advocates join forces.
“When you look at this, you see history, you see success and you see perseverance,” he said. “This is labor, government and the environmental movement getting together to do what’s right for jobs, what’s right for the environment and what’s right for our kids and grandkids.”
Also represented on the tour was the BlueGreen Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of eight environmental and labor groups, including the communication workers, steelworkers, plumbers and pipefitters and utility unions.
“This was the result of years of hard work to make sure that there would be good-quality union jobs on this project,” said Kim Glas, executive director of the alliance.
Connecticut labor groups also joined the tour, including the Carpenters Union and the UAW Local 6950, which represents 2,200 graduate assistants at the University of Connecticut.
“This is an issue our members care a lot about,” said Todd Vachon, president of the union. “We’re in favor of infrastructure development to employ Connecticut workers, and we consider climate change a major health and safety issue for us.”
Union members are both UConn teachers and scientists in engineering, climate science and other technical fields, he said.
“These are people who understand the science of climate change and are really frustrated by the politicization of the science,” he said. “There is a growing momentum within the labor movement to put this issue front and center.”