Winding Up: Could offshore turbines be the next big breakthrough renewable energy?

By Graham Vyse
November 2018

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.”

Nearby Virginia is working on its own ambitious offshore project. The state’s major utility, Dominion Energy, is partnering with the Danish energy company Ørsted to build a pair of six-megawatt turbines off Virginia Beach, which will be the first offshore project constructed in federal waters. Like Block Island, this will be a demonstration project, but Dominion plans to follow up with 200 turbines if the initial venture is successful. Speaking at a conference earlier this year, McClellan said the project “will provide valuable real world data on how turbines withstand hurricanes.” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam believes that offshore wind could support 14,000 jobs in his state and generate power for half a million homes.

There’s no question that wind power in general is finding a market. Last year, it contributed to 6 percent of the nation’s electricity supply. But virtually all of that came from landside turbines, many of them on the sparsely populated plains of states such as Oklahoma and Texas. Offshore wind, in more densely settled regions, is a considerably different proposition. Still, it seems poised to have its day. Even the executive director of the Business Network for Offshore Wind, Liz Burdock, seems a little surprised by the recent burst of activity. “It’s almost like drinking out of a fire hose,” she says.

For most of the past two decades, it appeared that the first offshore wind farm in the United States would be Cape Wind, an ambitious 130-turbine, 468-megawatt project proposed in 2001 for the shallow waters of Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts. It would have powered 200,000 homes on Cape Cod. But after 17 years of conflict, this pioneering effort failed for good last year in the face of opposition from wealthy and powerful Cape residents, including members of the Kennedy and Koch families, who worried it would spoil their ocean views. Environmental critics also argued that the turbines would harm birds and whales, hinder tourism, and disrupt boating. “As an environmentalist, I support wind power,” attorney and activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote in The New York Times in 2005, “including wind power on the high seas. … But I do believe that some places should be off-limits to any sort of industrial development. I wouldn’t build a wind farm in Yosemite National Park. Nor would I build one on Nantucket Sound, which is exactly what the company Energy Management is trying to do with its Cape Wind project.”

The opposition was well-funded and unyielding. William Koch -- the billionaire industrialist whose brothers Charles and David bankroll conservative causes across the nation -- chaired the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, which ultimately spent $40 million to stop the project. “Cape Wind was brilliant from a meteorological perspective,” says McClellan. “Shallow water, high winds. But politically it was a disaster. It was right off the shore from wealthy landowners who didn’t want to see it.” The blowback also fed the reluctance of other states to embrace similar efforts -- a  “Cape Wind hangover,” as McClellan puts it. 

In addition to the environmental concerns, a significant problem for Cape Wind was the projected cost of the energy it would have produced, 24 cents per kilowatt hour. But the current Massachusetts effort may be able to surmount that obstacle. Power from the state’s new 800-megawatt Vineyard Winds project is expected to cost just 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour. Electricity customers will save $1.4 billion over the next two decades, according to state estimates. “People are going to be really surprised,” Baker said earlier this year, “because the argument has always been, ‘Well, renewable and clean energy sources are great but, jeez, they’re more expensive.’ … We’re going to be able to significantly reduce our carbon footprint and at the same time give homeowners and businesses in Massachusetts terrific pricing.”

The governor could be right. Offshore boosters point to Europe, where the scale of the industry has driven prices down significantly over the last decade. The technology required for turbines in the water has been refined and new wind producing techniques are being adopted. Alicia Barton, president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, says coastal states have a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.” But she also says that offshore wind needs the federal government “to step up and advance that process for leasing if we’re going to be successful.”

This may already be happening. At the moment, offshore wind is benefiting from what the energy publication E&E News calls “an oddly cooperative dynamic between states and the federal government” under President Trump. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is casting offshore wind as part of Trump’s “America First” agenda. “When the president said energy dominance, it was made without reference to a type of energy,” Zinke told the Washington Examiner in June. “It was making sure as a country we are American energy first and that includes offshore wind. There is enormous opportunity, especially off the East Coast.”

There is one other explanation for this enthusiasm: Offshore wind is a diversification opportunity for the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico. “The Block Island wind farm project,” McClellan says, “was built with major subsea structures -- the foundations that are embedded into the sea bed to hold the turbines -- that were fabricated in the Gulf of Mexico. They were barged up from Louisiana to Block Island.”

Local opposition to offshore wind remains potent in some areas. The Maryland Public Service Commission approved ratepayer subsidies last year for two projects, but blowback from the resort community of Ocean City has been fierce. As with Cape Wind, critics say turbines visible from the beaches are an eyesore that will diminish tourism. Ocean City even rejected an offer from developer U.S. Wind to provide free electricity in exchange for the town’s support. “I think we’ll have those objections,” Burdock says, “until there are more projects in the water and people can see for themselves that it doesn’t obstruct their view and it’s not a hindrance to tourism.”

Rhode Island, as bullish as it is on offshore wind and as proud as it is of being the pioneer, will still need to quell lingering criticism of the enterprise. As The Christian Science Monitor has reported, many of the state’s fishermen worry about how this new industry will affect their livelihoods. “We’re not saying no, we’re not trying to stop it,” a Rhode Island lobsterman told the publication. “We’re trying to have a reasonable outcome in this that allows fisheries to survive.”

Raimondo is sensitive to this issue. “The two can coexist,” she insisted at a press conference. “We can have a vibrant commercial fishing industry and a vibrant renewable wind industry.