It’s a tiny island with a big claim to fame.
“We, the smallest town in the smallest state in the United States, have the very first offshore wind farm and we should be so proud,” Nancy Dodge of the Block Island Power Company Board said earlier this month.
Her enthusiastic comments came as Block Island turned off its diesel generators, and started using offshore wind power as its source of electricity. That switch officially happened on May 1 after years of planning and development.
“This is the start of something much bigger and we will always be able to say Block Island was the first,” added Jeffrey Grybowski of Deepwater Wind, the company leading the charge on the years long, multi-million dollar project.
That project involves five wind turbines spinning three miles off of the island.
An undersea cable connects the turbines to the mainland, providing power to some 17,000 mainland homes.
A separate cable then connects to Block Island, providing its residents with clean wind power as well.
Now with the first offshore wind farm up and running, Deepwater Wind is shifting its focus to other projects for New York and Massachusetts.
“Massachusetts can build big projects that are not too far from where we are right now, and produce a lot of clean energy, and a lot of clean jobs doing it,” Grybowski adds while standing on Block Island.
Deepwater Wind is just one of several companies envisioning hundreds of turbines off the Massachusetts coast, as Governor Charlie Baker asks utilities to incorporate offshore wind power into the state’s grid over the next two decades.
“We’re talking about projects that would be located 20 miles from the south coast of Massachusetts and maybe 15-16-17 miles from the closest point of the Vineyard or Nantucket,” Grybowski, the CEO of Deepwater Wind, adds.
At that distance, he says, the turbines will only be visible from land “if someone is looking for them.”
That’s a key point Deepwater Wind reiterated several times, well aware of the fierce opposition Cape Wind has faced for years.
That project, not associated with Providence based Deepwater Wind, hopes to build more than a hundred wind turbines in Nantucket Sound, just a few miles off of Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.
Back on Block Island, distance to land was also an issue. Some residents, like Rosemarie Ives, say that their once pure views of the Atlantic will never be the same following the installation of the man-made turbines so close to shore.
Ives and others also protest the speed with which the Block Island wind project received regulatory approval.
“It went so fast, through the federal process and the state process,” says Mary Jane Balser, the owner of Block Island Grocery.
“I can’t even get a mowing permit from Coastal faster than they got the permits to put that wind farm in,” she adds, referring to the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council.
Opponents of the project, who overall still support a move to clean energy sources, point to political connections between Rhode Island and Deepwater Wind’s Chief Executive Officer as one possible reason for what they call a “fast track”.
Jeffrey Grybowski served as Chief of Staff to former Rhode Island Governor Donald Carcieri. He left his post just before the administration, in 2008, named Deepwater Wind Rhode Island’s preferred developer of offshore wind power. By that time Grybowski was practicing corporate law at a firm representing Deepwater Wind. Grybowski later joined Deepwater in 2010.
Balser goes on to say she believes Block Island was chosen for the first in the nation wind farm because of its small, transient population.
“There were bigger motives. Get the first one in the ground where you’ll have the least amount of legal opposition and then, wham, build on it everywhere else,” she says.
“I feel the whole financial picture of this was unfair, not thorough enough, and the people here were used,” she continued, warning those living near future projects to follow proceedings closely.
Balser says she asked countless questions about the finances of the projects, but was never given detailed answers by the company nor the state of Rhode Island.
Initially, Deepwater Wind told residents on Block Island that they’d save 40% on electricity bills with the switch to wind.
Now officials say the savings may be closer to 25%. That would save an average consumer about $30 per month.
Balser isn’t even convinced of that, saying, “I will not save any money, and neither will anyone else.”
An unexpected price increase of the undersea cables bringing energy from the turbines to land accounts for some of the lost savings.
“There were a number of areas where we encountered rocks, and so that made the complexity of installing the cables higher, the costs went up,” explains Brian Gemmell of National Grid, the company in charge of that part of the project.
National Grid and Deepwater both say things like that offer valuable “lessons learned” as similar projects are built out in Massachusetts.
The other issue is the high price of power generated.
Right now, National Grid pays Deepwater Wind 24 cents per kilowatt hour generated.
That price goes up annually, landing at nearly 48 cents per kilowatt hour in 20 years.
The average price of electricity right now in New England is 16 cents per kilowatt hour.
But project officials say comparing the future price of offshore wind to the current average is misleading, since it too will increase with time, especially as coal and nuclear plants are decommissioned.
Plus, on Block Island specifically, using wind prevents customers from being subjected to the sometimes dramatic swings in diesel costs. Space will also be saved on the Block Island Ferry, now that diesel isn’t being hauled to the island every few days. Block Island Power Company estimates that up to 1 million gallons of diesel was used annually, before switching to offshore wind power.
Meanwhile, Deepwater Wind continues to build out its plans for future offshore wind projects in Massachusetts. It hopes to know if projects are approved within the next year or so.