The foundations of North America’s first offshore windfarm will start being installed today.
Deepwater Wind plans to build five turbines with a combined capacity of 30MW 4.8km off the coast of Rhode Island’s summer tourist destination of Block Island finally bringing a technology long established in Europe to the USA where it has struggled with opposition.
Backers French bank Societe Generale and Ohio-based Key Bank have provided roughly $300m for the project, which will take more than a year to build and is scheduled to produce electricity for the tiny island community and the mainland by the end of next year.
The turbine foundations will be fixed with pilings penetrating more than 46m into the sea floor over the next few months, though the firm said it had agreed to do the pile driving only when migrating whales are not in the area. The towers and turbines, produced by Alstom in France, will be installed next summer and autumn.
"Our belief is once Block Island is up and running, it will bring offshore wind from theory to reality in the United States and open up opportunities to build larger projects," said Jeffrey Grybowski, CEO of Providence-based Deepwater Wind.
For years the island’s 1,000 residents have relied on costly diesel-fired generators for electricity and once the wind farm starts up, prices will drop 40 per cent, according to a study by the Block Island Utility Task Group.
Block Island was chosen as a wind power site by the state in 2007 to help solve its energy issues and it was this built-in government and local support, plus the small size of the project, that helped get it off the ground, according to Grybowski.
"Rhode Island was very forward-thinking and had designated a specific development area," said Alexander Krolick, Societe Generale's energy project finance director for the Americas.
While nearly 2,500 offshore wind turbines are connected the European power grid, concerns over costs, the visual impact of wind turbines visible from the coasts, and the impact on birds and whales have prevented them from taking off on the other side of the Atlantic.
A 130-turbine windfarm in Nantucket Sound proposed by Cape Wind's was for years expected to be America's first such project, but it stalled in part due to a lack of local support. Other offshore wind projects are in limbo off of Delaware, New Jersey and New York.
Another major stumbling block is the cost of wind energy. About 90 per cent of the wind farm's power will be shipped to Rhode Island's mainland via an undersea cable where utility National Grid will buy it for 26 cents/kwh and mix it into the rest of the state's supply, which generally ranges between 6 and 10 cents/kwh.
"Everybody shares the view that we need to make progress to decrease the cost," said Jerome Deflesselles, Societe Generale's head of renewable origination for Europe.
He said more efficient turbines and cheaper construction methods could help offshore wind compete with traditional power within about five years.
Deepwater holds a 30-year lease on a parcel in federal waters about 24km southwest of Martha's Vineyard with room for as many as 250 turbines and the company said that if the project is successful, it could pave the way for expansion.