MIKE TAIBBI: At ground level, in their outsized elegance, they looked like the components of some futuristic space complex. But in fact they’re the blades that will spin atop America’s first offshore wind turbines. This demonstration project, a decade in the making, borrows renewable energy technology from land-based wind farms and takes that technology out to sea in a patch of the Atlantic Ocean off tiny Block Island, Rhode Island.
Jeff Grybowski is the CEO of the company behind the project, Deepwater Wind.
JEFF GRYBOWSKI: We lift all this equipment about 450 feet up in the air and bolt together.
MIKE TAIBBI: And these are, like, 25 tons apiece?
JEFF GRYBOWSKI: 29 tons, each blade. Each is about 241 feet long.
MIKE TAIBBI: Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo came to the Port of Providence to take a “victory lap.”
GOVERNOR GINA RAIMONDO: It means a cleaner source of energy. Ultimately, it means a lower cost of energy. I love that. I love it when Rhode Island is the first.
MIKE TAIBBI: The first to start an industry in the U.S. that’s already established and growing in Europe, where some three thousand offshore turbines supply power for more than seven million homes.
In Denmark, for example, as Newshour Weekend reported last year, offshore wind turbines, combined with land-based turbines already provide 40 percent of the country’s electricity and are turning toward a goal of 50 percent by 2020. By comparison, in the U.S. today, wind power accounts for only about five percent of all electricity generation.
To take this step in U.S. waters, planting a mere five turbines on the shallow continental shelf south of Block Island, Deepwater Wind had to overcome several court challenges, obtain state and federal permits, and beat back arguments that the windmills are an eyesore.
Block Island only has about a-thousand year round residents, but tens of thousands of admirers, mostly tourists and seasonal visitors, flock here in the summer.
RoseMarie Ives and her husband, Jonathan, own a home on Block Island and have been spending their summers here for decades.
ROSEMARIE IVES: Instead of one coming to the island and looking out at this wonderful, amazing view where the ocean does rise to meet the sky. You’re focused on a manmade industrial installation and I don’t like it.
MIKE TAIBBI: It cost 300 million dollars to build this project, all coming from private investment. Though Deepwater Wind is also getting a federal tax credit. But there is uncertainty about how much the energy generated from the wind farm will cost the ratepayers who’ll use that energy. The company that’s buying and distributing the electricity, National Grid, will pay Deepwater Wind a price for the wind farm’s renewable energy that’s higher than today’s market prices from traditional sources.
National Grid says that’s because: “Renewable energy can be more expensive than traditional sources based on energy markets today; however, it is an important part of our energy future, and prices could come down as the renewable energy industry advances. As part of the deal, National Grid will be paying Deepwater Wind annual cost increases of three-and-a-half percent every year, for the next 20 years. Critics say that could result in higher electricity bills for all one million Rhode Island residents.
MIKE TAIBBI: Al Lubrano, who owns a home on Block Island, used to run a manufacturing tech company on the mainland.
AL LUBRANO: This is going to be much more expensive. I would love to start a company where the state not only guaranteed me annual increases in what I could charge customers, but also guaranteed me profitability. And that’s basically what happened here.
ROSEMARIE IVES: I don’t think anybody has a problem with making investments in R & D and renewables, whether it’s solar, wind, or something else that’s out there.
MIKE TAIBBI: I hear the “but…”
ROSEMARIE IVES: However, if you ask the public do they want to pay 100 percent more or do they want to pay 300 percent more, I think they would say “Hell no!”
MIKE TAIBBI: While the rates almost certainly will rise across Rhode Island, most year-round Block Island residents don’t believe their electricity bills will rise that much. That’s in large part because the island already pays some of the highest electricity rates in the country…because it depends for all its power on shiploads of fuel oil from the mainland — and an old inefficient diesel power plant. In tough times, as when oil prices soared to well over a hundred dollars a barrel in recent years, islanders have endured electric bills double or triple the national average.
In better times, right now, for example, with oil prices way way down, Deepwater Wind’s project not only powers Block Island but also includes a 20 mile cable to carry the excess energy its turbines produce straight into the mainland electric grid.
That’s stability, says the island’s former town council leader Kim Gaffett.
KIM GAFFETT: Even if the cost of fuel comes so low that the savings are flat, we have no savings, it just costs the same, so what? We end up with renewable energy. We end up with a stable cost. It’s not going to fluctuate month to month.
MIKE TAIBBI: The winds here are steady and dependable. But with other large scale proposals to exploit those winds rejected or stalled up and down the East coast, Deepwater and Grybowski made a strategic decision eight years ago: instead of trying for the much larger wind farm, they went for a mere demonstration project: just thirty megawatts of power from these five turbines.
JEFF GRYBOWSKI: That really was a focus of our company’s philosophy on how to build this industry up. Let’s start with something small that’s manageable, where we can control the risk. And let’s gradually make these projects larger and larger to the point where we can eventually do really utility-scale stuff.
MIKE TAIBBI: Bottom line, they’re here. And wind power dreamers all along the 12 thousand miles of continental U.S. coastline — the Atlantic, the Gulf coast, the Pacific — are looking at little Rhode Island and saying, ‘It’s on!’”
GOVERNOR RAIMONDO: I think it’s the beginning of something really big. It’s a pilot, but it’s the beginning of an industry, and now we’re starting to hear from Massachusetts, hear from New York, hear from our neighbors.
MIKE TAIBBI: In fact, the Republican Governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, has signed legislation paving the way for the development of enough offshore wind generation to power about half a million homes.
Across the country, in California, a veteran engineer named Alla Weinstein saluted Rhode Island and said success there makes her own proposal for floating turbines anchored in deeper Pacific waters much more do-able.
ALLA WEINSTEIN: Just to get to the point of flipping the switch and getting energy from offshore wind is going to be a significant event. I can point and say, “Here, we do have it in the United States!”
MIKE TAIBBI: Weinstein’s company, Trident Winds, hopes to plant 100 floating turbines, based on prototypes tested and manufactured overseas, in the deep waters off Morro Bay, just down the west coast from Big Sur and Hearst Castle.
The turbines, essentially ships with towers and blades all turning with the wind 20 to 30 miles offshore, would be pinned to the ocean floor by massive anchors. Floating turbines can be fully assembled on land rather than out at sea, making the production process more efficient and scalable.
ALLA WEINSTEIN: You basically pre-fabricate all the pieces ahead of time and then you have a serial production line where you assemble them all together.
MIKE TAIBBI: Mass production?
ALLA WEINSTEIN: Exactly!
MIKE TAIBBI: But while the estimated cost of the project is $3.5 to $4 billion dollars, Weinstein says that’s no more than the cost of a new oil, coal or nuclear power plant.
ALLA WEINSTEIN: It has to work economically. It’s a balancing act again of looking at the market, looking at the demand, looking at the time it’s going to take you to permit a project of this sort, and doing it at the right time.
MIKE TAIBBI: 200 miles east of Morro Bay, the technicians tending to one of the world’s largest land-based wind farms, the Mojave wind farm in the Tehachapi Pass, say it is the right time for offshore wind, and the Block Island pilot project is the trigger.
Neal Emmerton monitors the turbines owned by the company Everpower.
NEAL EMMERTON: I think it’s tremendous. It’s huge. It’s nothing if you’re from Europe, because they’ve had them out in the water for 15, 20 years but here in the United States, it is. The first one to do it is also the most expensive, but once it’s been done the costs are going to drop like the crazy, and then it gets to be cost competitive.
MIKE TAIBBI: That’s what happened with land-based wind power: The oldest turbines here that go back 20 and 30 years were small and inefficient, by today’s standards, their useful life mostly over.
Today, the wild mustangs that have roamed these vast acres for generations pick their way among more than 5,000 modern towers with space-age blades capable of sweeping more usable energy from the steady winds than ever before.
MIKE TAIBBI: Right now wind provides about eight percent of California’s energy needs. But to meet the target of fifty percent renewable energy by the year 2030, wind is going to have to do a lot better than that. So Alla Weinstein sees her proposal for floating offshore turbines in the Pacific as realistic and on track.
ALLA WEINSTEIN: If we don’t innovate, if we don’t look beyond the horizon, if we don’t take the risks, we’ll not be advancing.
MIKE TAIBBI: Back in Rhode Island, some residents, like Al Lubrano and Rosemary Ives, remain skeptical how much those advances will cost them and their view.
But Jeff Grybowski thinks his company has harnessed the wind in a way that was inevitable.
JEFF GRYBOWSKI: It is awe-inspiring. It’s remarkable that we’re actually here at this moment. It’s actually going very fast now. That’s what really strikes me, how quickly it’s going.