America’s first offshore wind farm cut power bills, draws tourists

January 6, 2022
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A tour bus spills a few dozen people at its usual stop beside a postcard-perfect lighthouse at the south end of this tiny green island. But the tourists walk right past the 148-year-old Block Island icon and begin snapping photos of the slender, sci-fi-looking structures spinning out in the sea.

“It’s like ‘Star Wars’ out there!” says Sam Nelson, of Ohio.

“It’d be so cool to see them up close,” fellow Ohioan Sharlene Warner adds.

The country’s first offshore wind farm has managed to cut power bills on Block Island, supply it with a surplus of clean, renewable energy, and — as an added perk — given its tourism-dependent economy an unexpected boost.

“It’s been very well received,” tour guide Lisa O’Neill said. “Half the people on our tours come just for the windmills.”

Built in 2016, the five turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm generate about 30 megawatts of electricity. That’s more than enough for the 1,000 year-round residents and the several thousand people who visit each summer. The remaining electricity is fed to the mainland power grid to supply about 1% of Rhode Island’s energy needs.

Several Louisiana companies with roots in the offshore oil and gas industry played leading roles in the farm’s design and construction. Now, those firms are looking forward to the offshore wind industry’s growth closer to home. And the same energy companies that plan to build hundreds of turbines on the East Coast are now eyeing the waters off Louisiana and Texas.

How might Louisianans react when turbines start popping up south of Lake Charles and Grand Isle? If Block Island offers a hint of what’s to come, people in the Bayou State might end up with an even split between pride and indifference.

“I’ve always thought they were a good idea,” said Eileen Keenan, whose property overlooks the wind farm. “I think it’s great that Block Island is a showcase for what a wind farm can be, and a place for people to learn about them.”

Joe Coppola, who was hauling a clam rake and a bucket of quahogs from the beach, shrugged when asked about the wind farm.

“They don’t bother me,” he said. “Some people don’t like how they look. They’re not hideous. But I’m the type of guy where if I don’t like how something looks, I don’t look at it.”

Local opinion “wasn’t all rosy” when the wind farm was proposed several years ago, said Kim Gaffett, who served on the town council for almost 20 years.

There were concerns the turbines would loom over the island, marring its best and most lucrative attribute: natural beauty. Block Islanders are passionate conservationists. Almost half of the island’s 10 square miles are protected from development. Property sales are taxed at 3%, the revenue going toward preserving more open space. More than 30 miles of trail link the spacious parklands to several public beaches.

On a sunny morning, Gaffett, a Nature Conservancy naturalist, led a group of bird watchers through an estuary in one of the island’s wildlife refuges. They spotted egrets, willets, oystercatchers and …

“An osprey!” Gaffett yelled as pairs of binoculars suddenly aimed skyward.

Wind turbines can be a danger for birds, but Gaffett isn’t concerned about the ones off Block Island. The wind farm isn’t on a migratory pathway, and the shorebirds and sea ducks common to the area fly well below the turbines’ blades.

“A lot of work goes into monitoring birds around the wind farm,” she said. “I haven’t heard of a single bird strike.”

Worse for birds are the fossil fuel emissions that cause climate change, she said. The wind farm is helping to change that. Plus, if disaster strikes, the wind turbines are not going to blanket the island’s beaches in oil. That’s what happened in 1996, when a tank barge ran aground and spilled almost 1 million gallons of oil, decimating the lobster fishery and killing thousands of birds.

“If a wind turbine falls over, all it spills is air,” Gaffett said.

Bird watchers and other nature enthusiasts make up a large share of the thousands of people who visit the island during summer days. When they’re not eating chowder and lobster rolls, they’re out fishing, hiking, biking and sunbathing.

The wind farm, located 3 miles from the island, only enhances the experience, said Mike Butler and Kathleen McGrane, a couple visiting from Rochester, New York.

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