Winding Up

Could offshore turbines be the next big breakthrough in renewable energy?

Rhode Island once had a lot of firsts to boast about. America’s smallest state was the first to embrace religious freedom, the first to declare independence from Britain and the first to build a successful textile mill, thus bringing the Industrial Revolution to America. But there haven’t been many such milestones lately. Decades of manufacturing job losses and the Great Recession left the state’s economy decimated, languishing in the shadow of neighboring Massachusetts without a clear path to 21st-century viability. In 2013, Rhode Island received a first-place designation that no state covets -- the highest unemployment rate in the country.

All this was prologue to a summer day two years ago when Gov. Gina Raimondo arrived at the Port of Providence to tout the nation’s first offshore wind farm, then just months from operation off the Ocean State’s picturesque Block Island. Standing in front of massive turbine blades recently delivered to the port, Raimondo promised the farm would provide Rhode Islanders a cleaner source of energy, lower costs, a diversified fuel supply and lots of new jobs. “This is the way to rebuild our economy,” she said. “We cannot bring back old-fashioned manufacturing.”

Block Island was a significant milestone for the offshore wind industry, a foothold in the U.S. for a form of renewable energy that has thrived for years in Europe. It was the product of a decade of bipartisan work by state leaders -- a marquee achievement that the Democratic governor featured prominently in one of her reelection campaign ads this year. But the farm itself, with its five turbines and 30 megawatts, is ultimately a kind of test run, most significant for helping prompt a flurry of action on offshore wind in other states.  

Earlier in 2016, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker had signed legislation requiring utilities in the Bay State to procure a total of 1,600 megawatts from offshore wind by 2027. (That’s enough to power a third of all residential homes in the state.) It was an unprecedented commitment, followed by escalating competition among Northeastern states. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a master plan early this year for 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has set a goal of 3,500 megawatts by the same deadline. Now Massachusetts has increased its commitment to 3,200 megawatts by 2035.

But those are just promises. Rhode Island is already up and running. And it has hired Deepwater Wind, the Providence company that built the farm off Block Island, to construct another 400-megawatt project in federal waters. Connecticut has joined that project, adding 200 megawatts.  

All of this action is being driven by a series of factors. Most important, the cost of wind power has come down significantly in the past five years, making states more willing to invest in it. Not only has Rhode Island proved that these projects can be built and brought into operation, but Democrats such as Raimondo, Cuomo and Murphy have found an unexpected ally in the Trump administration. “We’ve got tremendous market momentum,” says Stephanie McClellan, director of the University of Delaware’s Special Initiative on Offshore Wind, “with great backing from statehouses up and down the East Coast as well as in the White House and the Department of the Interior. This is really a moment for commercial liftoff for offshore wind.” Read full article.