The switch was flipped this week on the first commercial offshore wind energy project in U.S. waters, as the Deepwater Wind LLC Block Island Wind Farm began sending power to shore.
The five-turbine, 30 MW project will supply most of Block Island’s power needs — replacing expensive diesel generation — with the remainder feeding into Rhode Island’s mainland grid.
“Our success here is a testament to the hard work of hundreds of local workers who helped build this historic project, and to the Block Islanders and the thousands more around the U.S. who’ve supported us every step of the way of this amazing journey,” Deepwater Wind CEO Jeffrey Grybowski said in announcing the Dec. 12 startup.
There was one glitch — a drill bit left behind by workers that had to be removed from the nacelle of one GE Halide turbine before it could start up. Rhode Island officials are enthused over their state taking a lead in industrial support for U.S, offshore wind.
“With this project, we’ve put hundreds of our local workers to work at-sea and at our world-class ports and are growing this innovative industry,” said Gov. Gina M. Raimondo.
The upset Presidential election of Donald Trump could alter the course of federal policy on wind power, an Obama administration priority. In Scotland, Trump fought a project that would put 11 offshore turbines within sight of a golf course resort he owns. In a recent memo, Trump transition energy advisor Thomas Pyle signaled a desire to end federal subsidies for wind and solar generation.
But the U.S. inland wind energy industry has earned allies in Republican stronghold states like Texas and Iowa, where wind power companies add operations and maintenance jobs, and income for landowners. Trump’s pick for Energy secretary, former Texas governor Rick Perry, saw wind power boom during his term in Austin.
“We’re putting money in the pockets of farmers who host wind turbines, keeping the farm in the family and the family on the farm,” said Tom Kiernan, president of the American Wind Energy Association, the day after Trump was elected. “And wind power supports 88,000 well-paying American jobs, a quarter of them made-in-the-USA manufacturing jobs. States, where most energy policy is made, are likely to continue their clean energy policies.”
Plus, a bipartisan consensus in Congress months before the election extended tax credits for renewable energy projects — a critical bridge for making wind and solar get to more competitive pricing — to 2020.
Despite Trump’s potential hostility, offshore wind backers say they are confident. Deepwater Wind CEO Jeff Grybowski told the Washington Post this week he does not think a Trump administration can block the movement.
“Our business is driven principally by what is happening in very individual markets,” Grybowski told the Post. “It’s not driven very much by national policy.”
“We’re not worried about it all,” said Marcia Blount, president of Blount Boats, Warren, R.I., builders of the Atlantic Pioneer, the first U.S. flagged crew transfer vessel that contractor Atlantic Wind Transfers is using to serve the Block Island project. Blount said other wind power developers, their equipment and boat suppliers are still preparing for the day bigger turbines are built in federal waters.
“They are not backing out,” she said.
Grybowski and Kiernan’s point about the states favoring wind power is key to offshore developers keeping their bigger plans in the pipeline. Deepwater and other U.S. and European wind energy developers have their eye on developing much bigger arrays in federal waters, to sell into the energy-hungry Northeast and mid-Atlantic markets. Massachusetts adopted legislation requiring its utilities to purchase 1,600 MW of offshore power.
Much of that could come from DONG (Danish Oil and Natural Gas) Energy’s 1GW Bay State project, planned for a federal lease south of Martha’s Vineyard. DONG recently partnered with local power supplier Eversource Energy which acquired a 50% stake in the project.
Those big offshore projects still have a long way to go with planning and studies, and will not be building until the 2020s, beyond the first term of a Trump administration.
A hostile presidency and Congress might make things difficult for the industry by denying BOEM resources it needs to do reviews and approval for offshore projects. But with the agency already having awarded more than 1 million acres for leases, the developers now have some staying power, said Jeremy Firestone, a professor at the University of Delaware who studies the industry.
“The leases are locked in and that creates a property right,” just as with oil and gas leases that cannot be summarily withdrawn by the government, Firestone said. Like industry figures, Firestone thinks the initiative now lies with state governments that support wind development and the infrastructure and regulatory policies to support it.
The seafood industry pushed back hard on one lease auction, seeking an injunction to delay BOEM’s Dec. 15 offering of nearly 80,000 acres off New York. Led by sea scallop vessel operators, industry groups contend BOEM did not adequately consider conflicts and economic impact when it mapped out the New York wind energy area.
On Thursday afternoon, the scallopers' group Fisheries Survival Fund said parties in the case had agreed to delay court proceedings and the auction would proceed, with their arguments to be heard in February.
The fishermen withdrew their motion for a temporary restraining order that would have delayed the scheduled auction. But under the agreement, results from the auction will not be final until after a Feb. 8 hearing, under an order issued by Judge Tanya Chutkan of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
If the lease is ready to be executed before the court is ready to rule on the fishermen's motion, BOEM must provide at least 14 days notice to the court, under Chutkan's order. If that happens the proceedings will be expedited.
Another issue not in court, yet to be resolved for long-range planning, is buffer zones between the proposed site and shipping lanes. BOEM officials say their plan has adequate buffers, based on their review of Automatic Identification System (AIS) ship tracks through the New York separation zones. But Coast Guard reviewers have recommended additional sea room in the busy New York Harbor approaches.