Offshore wind is coming to the United States.
Construction on what will be the country’s first offshore wind farm started Monday in Rhode Island. The wind farm, which is being developed by Deepwater Wind, will be located off of the coast of Block Island, a small island about 13 miles south of Rhode Island. Once completed, the five-turbine, 30-megawatt wind farm will produce enough energy to power all homes and businesses on Block Island, which previously relied on diesel generators, according to the Sierra Club. The wind farm will also send energy to mainland Rhode Island. It’s expected to come online in fall 2016.
Environmental groups, many of which have pushed for the project since it started going through hearings in 2013, applauded the start of construction. Bruce Nilles, senior campaign director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, told ThinkProgress that the start of construction was a “landmark” moment for the U.S. wind industry, and that it “really makes real the promise offshore wind has” in the U.S., particularly on the East Coast.
“This is technology that will play a very important part in decarbonizing electric sector,” he said.
— Sheldon Whitehouse (@SenWhitehouse) April 27, 2015
— Deepwater Wind (@DeepwaterWind) April 27, 2015
The offshore wind industry has been slower to take off in the U.S. than industries like onshore wind and solar. The country is home to about 47,000 onshore wind turbines, and the solar industry has been surging in recent years, with U.S. solar power growing by 6.2 gigawatts in 2014. And Europe, in contrast, has a robust offshore wind industry. Combined, the EU countries have the highest overall installed wind power capacity in the world, with 2,080 offshore turbines as of 2014.
But as of now, the U.S. has no offshore wind farms. Nilles said he thinks that’s partially because offshore wind is, in some ways, inherently more complicated than some other sources of renewable energy. Offshore wind has a few key environmental concerns, including the impact that noise from construction and installation has on whales and other marine life. Environmental groups and the wind industry have worked to come to agreements to protect whales, but there are also some concerns surrounding offshore wind’s impact on birds, bats, and the seafloor. And luckily, according to a recent study, sea birds do tend to avoid or dodge offshore wind turbines.
Nilles said he thinks the U.S. has learned a lot in the last five or so years about how to build offshore wind farms responsibly.
“I think we have learned a lot about the siting of clean energy projects in general over last few years,” he said. “In some places, it makes no sense to put renewable energy project.”
But there are other potential sources of conflict when it comes to offshore wind. One project — Cape Wind in Massachusetts — was stalled for nearly 14 years before its developer cancelled some of its key contracts in January. The future of Cape Wind is unknown, but what is known is that oil billionaire Bill Koch, who owns property in Nantucket Sound, has long fought against the project, claiming that installing the turbines in Nantucket Sound would create “visual pollution” and increase the cost of electricity in the sound. Koch’s opposition wasn’t the only thing that contributed to the project’s delay, but it was one of the most well-known.
Still, Nilles and other environmentalists are optimistic that, with the construction of the Block Island wind farm and as more and more studies on the environmental impact of offshore wind are completed, the energy source will begin to take off in the U.S.
“The Block Island Wind Farm is our Apollo 11 moment,” Emily Norton, director of the Massachusetts Chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. “I am going to remember this day, and tell my kids and grandkids that I was there when the first U.S. offshore wind farm was built — that when we had a choice between bequeathing them a future powered by polluting fossil fuels that lead to extreme storms, heat waves and drought, we chose to power their future from the wind, and the sun, and smart technologies.”
“There are discussions under way from Maine, Maryland, New York,” and other states about offshore wind, Nilles said. “We think today’s announcement will really help accelerate momentum around other projects.”