Wind Turbines in Block Island, RI

by Dylan Hickey ‘19, Milton Academy

Climate change has escalated the urgency for the exploration of alternative energy sources in recent years to help reduce our carbon footprint. The United States is one of the many nations researching ways to create clean, renewable energy. Many private companies are investing in clean energy developing things like solar panel fields and wind farms. However, the reality is that there is still too much carbon dioxide emitted nationally and it is a very expensive proposition to develop the infrastructures needed to produce clean energy to meet our total consumption. In the U.S., federal and state governments provide incentives to companies and investors who will develop alternative clean energy projects. These are attractive to businesses because these projects are both lucrative and climate friendly.

One significant alternative energy project that I have experienced first hand is the development of the first offshore wind farm three miles off the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island, courtesy of Deepwater Wind. My family has a home on Block Island so, needless to say, we have a vested interest in this demonstration, the project initiative, and the long term impact it will have on the small but certainly not insignificant island.

According to Wikipedia, the project was first proposed in December, 2009. The proposal came from Jeffrey Grybowski, an outsider to Block Islanders. Grybowski is the CEO of the company Deepwater Wind who became the face of the offshore wind project. Block Island was powered by inefficient diesel generators and had some of the highest electricity rates in the country. During its first proposal meeting, the project seemed like a very good idea as Block Island’s generators were outdated and left a massive carbon footprint. The proposed turbines would provide a way to eliminate carbon emissions from the island and possibly pave the way for more offshore wind farms in the future. However, as important as this project may be to the advancement of clean energy, opponents of the project played a very important role in looking out for the Island’s best interests. When Deepwater first proposed the project, many key details were left out. Locals started asking tough questions and it was important for Grybowski and Deepwater Wind to be transparent with them, gaining the trust of the homeowners who cared most about Block Island. This opened up  important dialogue, compensation, and compromise from both parties.

Block Island’s most valuable resource lies in its natural beauty. There are miles of pristine beaches, rolling meadows and ocean views for as far as the eye can see. Many people were worried that the wind turbines would destroy the tranquility of the island. The scenery is the island’s lifeline and is the reason why tens of thousands of visitors make their way to Block Island each year. Islanders wanted to know how close the turbines would be to the shore, how much light pollution they would produce (Block Island is known for its starry nights), the actual height of the turbines, the full cost to taxpayers to fund the project, and what the plan would be to decommission the wind turbines should they fail. Without locals there to ask questions, the company could have been kept many important details from the public.

Luckily, these questions were asked and eventually answered. According to Wikipedia, One of the major downsides of the project was the increase in the cost of electricity for all Rhode Islanders in order to fund the construction. Ironically Block Island’s rates will go down because they were so astronomically high before — the cost of electricity will continue to increase by a percentage each year. Another problem that the proposal faced was the fact that the wind turbines would only be three miles off the coast of the island. Three miles marks the border of federal and state waters. Deepwater Wind wanted the turbines in state waters to keep costs down and minimize the red tape required to use federal waters. It may sound like a comfortable distance, but these wind turbines are standing over 600 feet tall, towering above the once unspoiled coastline. The size of these turbines was, for the locals, probably the biggest surprise they encountered. Many could not visualize them and Deepwater’s virtual images did not capture the daunting size of these turbines in reality. I can see the wind turbines right from my bedroom window, they rise high above the ocean just beyond the land that generations of my family have fought to preserve. I can tell you they look like they are in my backyard.  

Though there are some downsides to the project, now that it has been up and running for a couple of years, I am starting to feel less skeptical and understand that there are many benefits to this offshore wind project. For instance, according to a website called “The Future of Energy”, offshore wind turbines are about four times as powerful as wind turbines on land. Wind currents are also more consistent offshore than on land. Another big benefit that the island realizes is the rise in tourism as a result of the wind turbines. Many more tourists come to look at the turbines as they are a first of their kind in the United States. The publicity that the wind farm generates helps get the island’s name out there. As mentioned before, the island used to produce power using diesel generators. These generators are known for their monstrous CO2 emissions so it is fitting that Block Island, which prides itself on conservation and wildlife preservation, has finally made the transition to a newer and cleaner energy source, reducing Block Island’s carbon footprint by a significant amount. Some other benefits of the project included an underwater cable that was laid to carry power from mainland Rhode Island to Block Island which could carry other types of wiring like fiber optics for internet and TV services which are pretty archaic on Block Island. The wind turbines have also created natural reefs where fish flourish. One last benefit worth mentioning is the job creation caused by the wind farm construction and conversion. During the construction of the turbines, many people were hired to help build and maintain the turbines, cables, transfer stations and power lines, boosting the local economy.

With the construction of the first offshore wind farm successfully completed, the question remains: what is the potential that more projects like these will come to fruition? According to their website, Deepwater Wind has already been commissioned to build 15 offshore turbines to power over 50,000 homes on Long Island. It’s clear that Block Island’s Wind Farm has shown how feasible clean energy is, but, unfortunately, just Block Island and Montauk are not enough. Carbon emissions in the United States are still unsustainable but offshore wind turbines are definitely a step in the right direction. According to Vineyard Wind’s website, Deepwater is in the works with a Martha’s Vineyard wind farm, 14 miles south of Massachusetts as well — a project that will power over 400,000 homes in Massachusetts — so they are taking steps to get more offshore wind farms commissioned and to increase the amount of clean energy powering the United States. So far, Deepwater Wind has shown that they can be a responsible partner in this undertaking. My hope is that they continue to build responsibly, preserving the delicate balance between our energy needs and the health of our planet.