For as long as anyone can remember, power on Block Island – population 1,051, 14 miles east of Montauk Point, Long Island, New York – has come from the burning of diesel shipped over from the mainland. Its electricity rates are among the highest in the nation. However, in a few short months Block Island will become a beacon for green energy in the United States. It is responsible for allowing the development of America's first offshore wind farm.
The motivation isn’t solely monetary. Not here, named as one of ‘The Last Great Places’ by the Nature Conservancy – a prestigious grouping that has only twelve sites in the Western Hemisphere. According to its wiki page, about 40% of the island is set aside for conservation. (OK, it was a little bit to do with money.)
“The people who live and work here feel strongly that we need to do things for our environment, so there’s a real philosophical belief in [clean energy],” says Kim Gaffett, who was head of the island’s town council when the windfarm was proposed and is now directing accompanying environmental initiatives. “But, there was a real advantage to trying to find an alternative way to produce power,” he added, “that was less expensive.”
The windfarm is relatively small, 30 megawatts, enough to power about 17,000 homes. Its size is meant to prove that offshore wind can work off the coast of the US and pave the way for larger wind farms. It’s being assembled by Deepwater Wind with considerable help from Europe which has had a 25 year head start on the US in this regard. “If you add up all nationalities working on this project, probably you come to 20 or 25 nationalities,” Chris van Beek, president of Deepwater Wind, the project developer told pri.com. “The towers were fabricated in Spain, the blades were fabricated in Denmark, the Danes are very good and specialized in that kind of work.” Van Beek is a Dutch citizen who worked in offshore energy for 25 years in the Netherlands before moving to Rhode Island.
The farm will consist of five 600ft tall turbines built by GE. That’s just taller than the Gerkin but Deepwater’s CEO says the turbines will get taller. Jeff Grybowski told fastcodesign.com, the strength of the wind grows as you get raise the turbine above the ocean so, “That’s kind of the next big thing: How do we get higher?” There may be concerns about giant windfarms blocking out the sunlight on the coast but Grybowski believes that’s not what developers want – for a very good reason. “The further out to sea you get, the stronger the wind is, and the better the project is. So there’s actually a strong incentive to get projects away from the shore.”
Currently US development is limited to the East coast, enabled by the Outer Continental Shelf. It descends slowly for hundreds of miles into the Atlantic which suits the available technology that demands permanent structures, huge bases driven into the sea bed. But this may not always be the case. Grybowski reckons that in time the West coast – which after one or two miles sinks to depths of 1000 ft is impossible to build traditional wind farms on – might yet become accessible, with innovation that delivers floating turbines. “You need to use the next leap in technology, which is a foundation that’s not nailed to the seabed, but one that essentially floats,” Grybowski says, explaining how these floating foundations would loosely tether a turbine to the ocean floor with an anchor, making permanent foundations unnecessary.
Launch off Block Island’s east coast and keep heading east and you’ll find the world’s largest offshore windfarm. Hornsea Project Two has recently been given approval by ministers and will be located in the North Sea, 55 miles off the Grimsby coast. It won’t be hard to find it – each one of the 300 turbines are taller than the Gerkin – and they’ll be installed in an area five times the size of Hull – more than 480sq km. The multibillion pound project is being developed by Dong Energy and will deliver 1,800MW of low-CO2 electricity to 1.6m UK homes. Although the final investment decision is yet to be signed off, Dong Energy has pledged to invest $6bn in the UK and create 2,500 jobs. It says, “A project of this size will help in our efforts to continue reducing the cost of electricity from offshore wind and shows our commitment to investing in the UK.”
It couldn’t come at a better time for the UK government which has been criticised by industry players for not demonstrating greater intent when it comes to low-carbon energy. Greg Clark, the business and energy secretary, said: “The UK’s offshore wind industry has grown at an extraordinary rate over the last few years, and is a fundamental part of our plans to build a clean, affordable, secure energy system. Britain is a global leader in offshore wind, and we are determined to be one of the leading destinations for investment in renewable energy, which means jobs and economic growth right across the country.”
Dear Mr Clark,
More of this please.