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Winds Of Change? Rhode Island Hopes For First Offshore Wind Farm

The first foundation jacket installed by Deepwater Wind in the nation's first offshore wind farm construction project is seen next to a construction crane on Monday, on the waters of the Atlantic Ocean off Block Island, R.I.
Stephan Savoia
The first foundation jacket installed by Deepwater Wind in the nation's first offshore wind farm construction project is seen next to a construction crane on Monday, on the waters of the Atlantic Ocean off Block Island, R.I.

Aboard a ferry off the coast of Rhode Island, state and federal officials take a close look at a steel structure poking out of the ocean. It's the first foundation affixed to the seafloor for a five-turbine wind farm off the state's coast.

It's a contrast to what's happening off the coast of Massachusetts. Developer Cape Wind has spent more than 10 years and millions of dollars there on a massive wind farm that it may never build.

Rhode Island's project, Deepwater Wind, has sailed through by comparison, in part because of its great location, explains Chief Executive Officer Jeff Grybowski. The wind farm will sit three miles off the coast of Block Island, about 12 miles away from the mainland.

"The location off the southeast corner of Block Island has incredibly strong wind and it is quite far from the mainland," Grybowski says.

The nearly 600-foot-tall turbines are far enough from the mainland that most people won't be able to see them from shore. As Grybowski points out, the state of Rhode Island wanted to pioneer this project and chose where to build it.

"That was based on many years of research and public discussion," Grybowski says.

Deepwater Wind underwent far more extensive impact studies than Cape Wind, and the company spent more time engaging important stakeholders. Not everyone in Rhode Island loved the project from the start, but unlike Cape Cod, Block Island wants to replace its expensive source of energy.

"We are one of the highest rates in the country," says David Milner, general manager for the Block Island Power Company, which supplies all of the island's electricity by importing a million gallons of diesel oil every year.

"We got up over 50 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is a huge burden on the businesses out here and the individuals," Milner says.

In New England, the average rate is 16 cents per kilowatt-hour for all sectors.

Year-round Block Island resident Peter Baute stands on the iconic Mohegan Bluffs, which boasts panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean.

"That's interesting there's two platforms out there. Let's just take a look," Baute says.

Baute narrows his eyes as he lifts up binoculars to check out the construction of the offshore wind farm. It promises to reduce electricity costs by 40 percent. He says that will go a long way for an island whose economy relies on summer tourists, because it's home to only about a thousand people for the rest of the year.

"You've got to work hard to make a living in June, July, August and maybe part of September. You've got four months max to break even," Baute says.

When the turbines aren't spinning, the island will draw energy from the mainland through an underwater transmission cable that's part of the wind project. That cable could also bring high-speed internet to the island — another selling point.

Still, a vocal minority of island residents are skeptical about the anticipated benefits of the offshore wind farm. Edith Blane doesn't think it's worth trading in ocean views.

"So that the beauty, and the calm, and the stillness and the loveliness of a summer night — it's never going to be the same again," she says.

With construction underway, Deepwater Wind is on track to build the nation's first offshore wind farm. It has everything Cape Wind doesn't — a utility company buying all of its power and bank loans.

The federal government has auctioned off nine leases for more offshore wind farms. That means all eyes are on Rhode Island to see how it works.

Copyright 2015 The Public's Radio

Ambar Espinoza’s roots in environmental journalism started in Rhode Island a few years ago as an environmental reporting fellow at the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting. She worked as a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio for a few years covering several beats, including the environment and changing demographics. Her journalism experience includes working as production and editorial assistant at National Public Radio, and as a researcher at APM’s Marketplace.