At an industrial facility in Rhode Island, work has finally begun on what will likely be America’s first offshore wind farm. Originally proposed in 2008, Providence-based company Deepwater Wind’s project has overcome significant headwinds to receive permits, sign power purchase agreements, and finally begin construction. Made up of only five turbines, work on the relatively small project comes at a time when New England’s energy future faces uncertainty. The region generates almost no energy locally, being dependent primarily on natural gas and coal imports from other parts of the country. As a result, consumers are susceptible to volatile rates due to severe weather and supply constraints. A proposal to expand natural gas pipelines represents one way forward for the region, while the wind farm on Block Island represents a very different path.
As a former resident of Block Island, I have been intently following the progress of this project since its initial announcement. While working on the ferry to the mainland, I spent many hours on a nearly empty ship hauling truckloads of diesel fuel to be burned at the island’s one power plant. It comes as no surprise that island residents have to pay some of the highest electricity rates in the country, around $0.50 per kWh. These rates are significantly higher than even Hawaii, where expensive electricity has set off a rush of solar PV and other local energy generation.
The wind farm is a crucial component of Block Island’s energy future. Deepwater Wind claims that once operational, the farm could reduce island electricity rates by nearly 40%. Many island communities around the world have recently initiated ambitious plans to wean themselves off imported fuels completely by integrating locally generated energy. Local energy storage has been an important aspect of many islands’ plans to reduce dependence on imported energy, as discussed in a recent post by my colleague Anissa Dehamna. A great example of this can be found on Kodiak Island in Alaska. Global power electronics provider ABB worked with the local electric cooperative to install both battery and flywheel-based energy storage systems to help stabilize the output from the island’s wind turbines, and to store excess power generated at night to be used at times of high demand. The addition of energy storage on Kodiak Island has enabled up to 100% penetration for renewable energy and greatly reduced diesel consumption.
The development of the wind farm on Block Island will present great opportunities to demonstrate the value that other clean energy technologies can provide. The island is an interesting case due to the dramatically smaller population outside of the summer months. There are only around 1,000 year-round residents on the island, meaning demand for electricity most of the year is only a fraction of summer demand. For most of the year, the 30 MW output from the wind farm will be far more than is needed to power the island. By integrating local energy storage, the island could easily be a net exporter of energy through the soon-to-be-built transmission line connecting the mainland while only ever using locally produced clean energy. This can provide substantial benefits to residents through lower electricity rates and a much cleaner, more reliable power system.