PROVIDENCE, R.I. – When the Obama administration cleared the way five years ago for the nation’s first offshore wind farm to be built, advocates hoped it was the start of a new way of generating power along the East Coast.
That project, Cape Wind’s wind farm off of Cape Cod, has stalled. And construction has only just begun for another, much smaller, offshore wind farm near Block Island.
Deepwater Wind’s Rhode Island project is a five-turbine wind farm that would have the ability to power 17,000 homes, perhaps as early as next year.
Developers and industry experts say the offshore wind energy sector is off to such a slow start in the U.S. because of regulatory hurdles, opposition from fossil fuel interests and the trials and tribulations of doing something for the first time.
While they’ve tempered their expectations that offshore wind energy will come to the U.S. in a big way anytime soon, many are hoping Deepwater Wind’s wind farm will pave the way for other projects.
There are 11 offshore wind projects in various stages of development in 10 states, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Deepwater Wind is the farthest along.
“The offshore wind industry today is in its infancy in the U.S., but once Deepwater Wind’s project gets built, that will be an important inflection point,” said Kit Kennedy, a renewable energy expert at the National Resources Defence Council. “We will have a solid framework in place for leasing and siting offshore wind projects, and we’re going to see this industry move forward now.”
The industry is far more advanced in Europe. The expense of starting a new industry, and Cape Wind’s delays, have stymied growth in the U.S, said Professor James Manwell, director of the Wind Energy Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“Since Cape Wind seemed to be tip of the spear, slowing Cape Wind sort of slowed everybody down,” he said.
Cape Wind received approval to build the nation’s first offshore wind farm — a 130-turbine project — five years ago Tuesday, after more than eight years of lawsuits and government reviews. The company has faced a series of legal challenges brought by project opponents, largely funded by billionaire businessman William Koch. Two major utilities terminated their contracts to buy power from the proposed wind farm in January.
Cape Wind has won most of the lawsuits, and is waiting for rulings on the few that are left, Cape Wind President Jim Gordon said. He said he’s glad to see Deepwater Wind moving forward, and hopes other projects follow suit.
“There wasn’t a prescribed path in which to do this,” Gordon said. “We knew it would take several years, but we never expected it to take this long.”
Deepwater Wind plans to start construction off Block Island this summer, so the farm can begin operating in the fall of 2016. The first components are being built now.
CEO Jeffrey Grybowski said the permitting process and finding the right mix of contractors who could do the work in the U.S. took longer than expected. That’s why the company started with a small, manageable project, he added.
Deepwater Wind also plans to build a wind farm of at least 200 turbines between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard.
“The fundamentals of the business are really strong,” Grybowski said. “But it will take this first project to kick things off.”
Despite the hurdles and delays, Jackie Savitz, a vice-president for the conservation group Oceana, said she still sees tremendous potential for the industry in the U.S.
“If we can start being players in this field, I think we can start to scale it in a really positive way,” she said.
Kennedy said the industry’s future hinges on the construction costs coming down as developers become more experienced, on states pursuing renewable energy policies and on Deepwater Wind succeeding.