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America’s First Offshore Wind Farm Is Almost Here

Why has offshore wind technology been so slow to catch on in the United States?

By Madeleine Thomas


(Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The first offshore wind farm in the country, a $300 million project more than seven years in the making, will open this fall off the coast of Rhode Island.

Deepwater Wind, an offshore wind developer, is spearheading the five-turbine farm near Block Island, less than 20 miles south off the mainland. The facility will power most of the island, cut local electric rates by 40 percent, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40,000 tons a year. The wind farm — the first of its kind in United States waters — could power as many as 17,000 homes.

“I look at Block Island as sort of the key to unlocking the code of how to do offshore wind in the U.S.,” Deepwater Wind CEO Jeffrey Grybowski told the Associated Press.

There may be merit to Grybowski’s claim, but, overall, offshore wind in the U.S. is slow-going. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has already approved 11 commercial wind leases throughout the Atlantic, but as the Associated Press reports, projects off the coasts of Cape Cod (which actually would have been the first in the country, if successful) and Long Island both stalled due to legal hurdles or delayed state votes. In Europe, offshore wind is a thriving industry, with more than 3,000 wind turbines installed across 11 countries.

Another revolutionary project — this time in fresh, not saltwater—in Lake Erie is also set for completion by the fall of 2018. As Daniel J. McGrawreported for Pacific Standard last month, engineers in Ohio are experimenting with a new means of mounting 500-foot-tall wind turbines to Erie’s lakebed, just 10 miles off the coast of Cleveland. The endeavor, known as the “Icebreaker project,” could turn the Great Lakes into a Midwestern energy hub.

Instead of drilling the turbine’s foundation directly into seafloor bedrock, a massive steel drum, known as a Mono Bucket, establishes a suction cup-like grip on the lake’s floor. The drums, which take just 12 hours to install, are less likely to disturb the environment than traditional “pile-driving” foundations, which are prone to releasing pollution and sediment trapped in deeper waters. Even the Department of Energy believes that the novel piece of engineering could transform offshore wind farming along both the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.

As Block Island’s offshore wind farm nears completion, North Carolinians are preparing for a farm of their own. On Friday, the Department of the Interior announced additional plans to lease more than 122,000 acres off the coast of North Carolina for commercial wind power. The proposal is open for public comment until mid October.