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Block Island offshore wind farm will be America’s first

Opponents cite poor planning, urge pursuing alternative renewable energies

Three miles off the coast of Block Island, Deep Water Wind is overseeing construction of the first offshore wind farm in the United States and is expecting the controversial turbines to begin producing electricity by fall 2016.

The project will consist of five turbines connected to the mainland by an underwater cable, according to Deep Water Wind’s website.

“We know the world is watching closely what we do here, and we’re incredibly proud to be at the forefront of a new American clean-tech industry launching right here in the Ocean State,” said Deep Water Wind CEO Jeffrey Grybowski in a company press release.

The project received $290 million in private funds from French bank Societe Generale and KeyBank National Association of Cleveland, according to a March 2 Deep Water Wind press release. Though the U.S. government does not directly fund renewable energy projects, several federal incentives exist in the form of tax credits for every kilowatt-hour of wind energy produced.

While offshore wind projects have become popular across Europe over the past 20 years, many projects in the United States have been stalled because of concerns regarding costs, disruption of aesthetics and interference with ocean life.

Strong support from a variety of organizations and stakeholders — absent in other U.S. wind farm projects — helped the project advance to the construction phase, a July 27 Rhode Island Public Radio article describes.

According to Deep Water Wind, energy costs on Block Island could decrease by as much as 40 percent. Residents currently face some of the highest electricity rates in the country, ranging from 37 to 50 cents per kilowatt hour this past year, in comparison to the average mainland cost of 14-15 cents per kilowatt-hour.

But some locals are not satisfied with the way the project has been handled. “I knew right away that the town had not done its homework,” said Chris Warfel, Block Island Town Council member.

Warfel cited a poor use of funds and a spotty technological track record as main reasons for his opposition to the project. The town was not well organized in its planning of the project and was not equipped with the necessary expertise to thoroughly investigate its operation, he said, adding that he would like to see the community pursue alternative renewable energy solutions.

“It will be interesting to see how long (the turbines) last,” Warfel said. Deep Water Wind has estimated the lifetime of the turbines at 20 years, after which specific parts may need to be repaired or replaced.

Deep Water Resistance, an organization started by Block Island locals to protest the project, calls the Block Island Wind Farm “a Wall Street financial creation, that intends to make a fortune at our expense,” according to a statement on the group’s website, which suggests natural gas or hydroelectric as potential power alternatives.

The environmentally friendly turbines will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40,000 tons each year and have created 300 temporary local construction jobs, according to the Deep Water Wind website.

J. Timmons Roberts, professor of environmental studies and sociology, said people are starting to appreciate these environmental benefits as they witness more hurricanes, fires and other extreme weather events. “People are starting to perceive the effects of climate change,” he said, adding “they’re realizing that the solutions need to be bigger.”

Zoning and approval laws are often difficult obstacles for many offshore wind projects, Roberts said. In Rhode Island, the Ocean Special Area Management Plan investigates how infrastructure like wind turbines may affect components ranging from commercial fishing interests to marine life, and often restricts areas from development, Timmons added.

Recently, concerns have been raised regarding worker safety and the quality of the turbines’ construction, according to a Sept. 28 Eco R.I. News article. Issues involving poor documentation and irregular welding practices have led to a demand for better supervision by ABS Group, the consulting firm hired to oversee construction. But all welding has been inspected and was determined to be in compliance with industry standards, according to the article.

Worker safety violations involving loss of control of suspended loads have prompted Weeks Marine, the construction company building the turbines, to institute training and safety improvements, including stationing safety officials on all vessels, Eco R.I. News reported.


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