Block Island lights the way for future offshore wind farms

On a cold, clear morning last week, Ben Kasprick and Brian Courtney of Houston, Texas, boarded a ferry in Point Judith, R.I., to help usher in the next phase of a small island’s quest to become a renewable energy pacesetter.

Kasprick and Courtney, director of operations and project manager, respectively, for Helical Pier Systems, had traveled across the country to visit the site of the diesel-fueled power plant that the resort community of Block Island has depended on for decades but which soon will become obsolete.

By March, instead of burning emissions-laden fossil fuel to supply the island’s electricity needs, the power company will become a publicly owned distributor of energy generated by the nation’s first offshore wind farm — if all goes according to municipal leaders’ plans, that is.

“Our company will be building the foundations of the structures for the transmission systems from the substation to the Block Island Power Co.,” Kasprick said as the ferry approached the island, the empty streets near the docks on this late December day a stark contrast with the boisterous energy of the summer scene.

With Kasprick and Courtney were officials from National Grid, the electricity and natural gas delivery firm that hired Helical for the project. The substation Helical will help build is the next milestone in Block Island’s decadelong odyssey to trade its dependence on an independent but expensive, unreliable and environmentally harmful power source for a new, greener system tied to the mainland that proponents hope will be cheaper and more stable.

On Dec. 12, the five-turbine wind farm built by Deepwater Wind 3 miles off the south shore of the island began producing power and sending it through a 30-mile undersea cable to Narragansett, R.I., and into National Grid’s regional electricity system. By this spring, when the construction of the substation at the Block Island Power Station is slated for completion, the island will be able to receive its power directly from the wind farm and send the surplus to the mainland. The diesel generators will be shut down and decommissioned, except for one that will be kept as an emergency backup. Until then, though, the 950 or so year-round residents still are relying on the diesel plant to light their homes.

“By the end of March or the beginning of April, the power company will become an energy distribution company,” said Nancy Dodge, who recently retired as the island’s town manager and is now interim president of the power company. “I personally think it’s amazing and remarkable that Block Island got to be the first in the nation with an offshore wind farm. It’s been eye opening for everyone.”

In September, island residents approved — by a two-vote margin — spending $1.8 million to purchase two-thirds of the power company, with the remaining third still held privately. Dodge said the next step is getting legislation approved by the state to allow the creation of a public utility for the island that would distribute power from the wind farm, bill customers and send excess power to National Grid. In return, the island gets a power and fiber-optic link to the mainland that promises to be a vast improvement from the slow dial-up service that impedes businesses and residents alike.

“We’re hoping there will be a savings to customers,” Dodge said.

'Something much bigger'

The Block Island Wind farm has a potential generating capacity of 30 megawatts, enough for 17,000 homes, according to Deepwater Wind. National Grid said it hasn’t been tracking the amount it’s been generating thus far, though, nor is that figure available from Deepwater.

If it achieves peak production, that would be far more than the 3 to 4 megawatts needed to power the entire island, even on peak tourist days, when high electricity demand often has led to brownouts that would wreak havoc with computers and other appliances, residents say.

In getting the $300 million wind farm up and running over the last 11 months — albeit with one glitch, a drill bit accidentally left inside one of the turbines, rendering it inoperable until repairs are made “in the near term,” according to the company — Deepwater officials say they successfully have achieved their goal. For Deepwater, the purpose of the project was to demonstrate that offshore wind farms can be built in the United States, just like they have been in Europe and other parts of the world.

“We’re confident the Block Island Wind Farm is just the start of something much bigger,” said Jeffrey Grybowski, chief executive officer of Deepwater Wind, in response to questions sent by email. “Offshore wind provides the U.S. with our best opportunity for a new, large-scale source of affordable and efficient energy. We’re more optimistic than ever about the potential of offshore wind to transform the country’s energy future and re-energize local economies.”

The company has three other larger wind farms in “pre-development stages,” he said. One would be located off the South Fork of Long Island, another off the coast of Maryland and a third would serve Massachusetts.

Dodge, for her part, is confident that Block Island made the right decision to lead the way in offshore wind, disagreeing with the small group of critics who denounced the turbines as industrial structures that would ruin the island’s unique natural beauty.

“I think they’re elegant looking, not a blot on the horizon,” she said. “We’re hopeful there will be more wind farms.”

Island residents and business owners are hoping, too, that the wind farm will deliver the benefits promised — especially lower electricity costs once they’re getting power directly from the turbines.

“Everybody’s waiting for that first bill,” said Jessica Willi, executive director of the Block Island Tourism Council, a marketing organization. “If the bills go down, you’ll hear a lot of people saying this has been the best thing ever to happen to Block Island.”

Other impacts, she said, are starting to be seen. Some hotels have created vacation packages that include a boat trip to the turbines. Recreational fishing boats are congregating around the turbine foundations because they attract a variety of species.

There are, of course, still naysayers who believe the turbines have ruined the view from Southeast Light, one of the island’s most visited spots.

“But there are others who say they’re beautiful, that this is progress. Green energy,” Willi said. “But you can still come to Block Island and not see them if you don’t want to.”

'Number one fishing spot'

Mark Pickering, a deckhand on the charter fishing boat Rooster, said the turbines' foundations are a great place to catch black sea bass, false albacore and cod.

“It’s brought so many boats to the area,” he said as he stopped by Island Hardware & Supply, one of the few businesses that stays open year-round. “You used to see 50 or 60 boats in that area, now there are over 100. It’s our No. 1 fishing spot.”

Petie Hunter, owner of the hardware store, also is enthusiastic about the wind farm.

“I love them,” she said of the turbines. “It’s already been a boon to the island, with all the construction crews coming here. Clean energy is the way to go.”

She said she’s looking forward to a reduction in her electric bill, which averages about $1,000 per month, and service that doesn’t “fry everything electrical” with frequent outages.

At the 21-room Atlantic Inn, owners Brad and Anne Marthens also are hoping the wind farm will mean lower electric bills, which now run between $8,000 and $11,000 per month. But he’s taking a wait-and-see approach, still skeptical that all the promised benefits will be realized.

“We’re not getting any benefit from it now, but potentially it means a cost savings,” he said. “But we’ve never gotten a straight answer about what the savings will be.”

Still, he believes that getting rid of the diesel power plant is best for the island and the environment.

“Block Island’s always been a conservation-minded island, so it’ll be a selling point,” he said.

For Barbara MacMullan, vice president of The Washington Trust bank office on the island, finally seeing the turbines spinning offshore validates the many years of effort she and others devoted to figuring out how to solve the island’s energy problem. The head of the now disbanded Electric Utility Task Group since 2004, she now serves as chairwoman of the Block Island Power Co. transition team.

“It’s been an incredibly long journey,” she said. “How great it is now to see those turbines turning. It’s amazing we got there. In the beginning we weren’t sure the project was going to go through” with all the obstacles of opposition, financing and regulatory hurdles to overcome.

High-speed internet next

Business owners and residents, she said, have been hurt not only by the high cost of power on the island, but also by price volatility that the wind farm and connection to the regional grid promises to erase.

“Because the fuel charge in our bills would change monthly, it’s been very hard for a business or a household to budget,” she said. “We won’t see those fluctuations happen now.”

Now that the fiber-optic connection is in place, the town will begin the $8 million to $10 million project of laying cable to make high-speed internet available throughout the island, Town Manager James Lathrop said, then it will charge customers for the service.

“It’s more than just electricity with this project,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of economic benefits already. There are now helicopter tours to the turbines, and people are harvesting mussels off the foundations.”

This summer, while the turbines were under construction, a fire broke out at the power company, which for many residents confirmed that exchanging diesel generators for a wind farm was the right decision, said Ken Lacoste, first warden of the Town Council. The plant shut down for about nine hours on a busy summer day, forcing restaurants and other businesses to close.

Now, with a source of power from the mainland, the island won’t go dark if the turbines stop spinning.

“We’ve been burning a million gallons of diesel fuel a year, and putting all our eggs in one basket,” Lacoste said. “Now, we’ll have a baseline of energy that we haven’t had. It’s been a long road, and it’s pretty exciting now to see it come to fruition.”

j.benson@theday.com

By the numbers

Block Island Wind Farm

Distance from Block Island: 3 miles

Distance between turbines: ½ mile

Distance from first to fifth turbine: 2 miles

Water depth: 75 to 90 feet

Turbine height: 600 feet when blade is verticle, the same height as the Space Needle in Seattle and about 50 feet taller than the Washington Monument

Blade length: 240 feet

Generating capacity: 30 megawatts, enough for 17,000 homes

Portion of generated wind farm power to be used by Block Island: 10 percent

Portion to be sent to mainland: 90 percent

Minimum wind speed for turbines to generate power: 6.5 mph

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