By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
KINGSTON, R.I. — Donald Carcieri may not have a plush office in the Statehouse anymore, but the former two-term governor is still lobbying for offshore wind energy. He believes Rhode Island Sound is the “Saudi Arabia of offshore wind in this nation,” and a study he commissioned in 2006 determined that offshore wind farms could supply at least 15 percent of the Ocean State’s electricity needs.
“We have a great opportunity to lead the nation in offshore wind energy development,” said Carcieri, one of seven guests who spoke during last week’s Rhode Island Foundation-sponsored community forum entitled “The Future of Offshore Wind Energy in Rhode Island.” “We don’t have any oil, natural gas or hydropower. We don’t have any of that. But all the ingredients are here to be the leader in offshore wind. And once that happens, there’s potential for thousands of jobs.”
The hour-long forum held Sept. 8 at the University of Rhode Island’s Lippitt Hall was moderated by Rhode Island Public Radio news director Catherine Welch and focused on the environmental, economic and energy impacts associated with offshore wind energy.
Carcieri, however, wasn’t the only guest panelist who believes offshore wind holds much of the Ocean State’s economic potential.
Douglas Hales, assistant professor at the URI College of Business Administration, said if large wind farms develop off Block Island and Cape Cod, they would generate enough business to create a viable wind-farm industry in the region.
The epicenter for this growth industry they said could and should be Quonset Point in North Kingstown. “It’s a great facility. It’s ready to be the first facility of its kind, and Rhode Island is ready to lead the way,” Carcieri said. “Offshore wind is a piece of our energy solution. It’s an insurance policy we need to have as a nation.”
The Block Island Wind Farm is on target to become the nation’s first offshore wind farm. Site preparation for the 30-megawatt, five-turbine offshore wind farm is scheduled to begin in late 2012, with commercial operations set to start in 2013, according to project developer Deepwater Wind.
The wind farm will be located entirely in Rhode Island waters — about 3 miles southeast of Block Island — will generate about 100,000 megawatt-hours annually, and it will impact the entire state.
Environmentally, displacing energy from fossil-fuel burning generators on Block Island with much cleaner wind energy will reduce emissions of harmful air pollutants by the following amounts each year: 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide; 20,000 pounds of nitrogen oxide; 3.4 tons of diesel particulates; and more than a pound of mercury, according to various reports.
The project and the energy it produces, however, also will increase the cost of electricity for the entire state — at least initially.
Excess power not used by New Shoreham residents and businesses will be exported to the mainland via the bi-directional Block Island transmission system. The cable will be buried about 6 feet beneath the seafloor and will connect the island to the mainland. Deepwater Wind will lay the cable, but it will eventually be turned over to National Grid at a substantial cost.
The project is expected to inject nearly $110 million into the state economy and create about 200 local construction jobs, as well as permanent operations and maintenance jobs, according to the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (EDC).
Project proponents say this five-turbine wind farm will position Rhode Island as a leader in the emerging offshore wind industry, creating hundreds, perhaps thousands, of local jobs in the manufacturing, technology and repairs sectors of the industry. Currently, no U.S. company makes offshore wind turbines, just land-based models, according to Jeffrey Grybowski, senior vice president for strategy and external affairs for Deepwater Wind.
Carcieri said Quonset Point could be the hub for a thriving Northeast wind energy industry, from New England to New Jersey.
The Block Island Wind Farm could lead to the development of a 200-turbine project in state and federal waters that would provide power to Rhode Island, Long Island and other areas in the Northeast. Deepwater Wind is actively pursuing this project, but a bid process would be required.
“We’re not talking about an energy industry,” Hales said. “This is a high-tech industry. China is already way ahead of us and investing heavily in alternative energies.”
With Quonset Point serving as the catalyst, Hales said Rhode Island could become the first state to produce 100 percent of its energy with renewable sources. He predicted that goal could be accomplished in 20 years.
There are, however, upfront costs that will be absorbed by National Grid ratepayers — both big and small. All of the electricity generated by the wind turbines will be sold to National Grid under a 20-year power-purchase agreement, which was approved by the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission. The state Supreme Court upheld the contract in July. The price of power from the Block Island Wind Farm is capped at 24.4 cents per kilowatt-hour for the first full year of commercial operation.
To help offset the cost of generating renewable power and laying a cable from Block Island to the mainland, the average Rhode Island home will pay $1.35 more a month — or $16.20 a year — for electricity in 2013, according to estimates. Cash-strapped municipalities also will have to pay higher electricity bills. In 2013, the city of Providence will pay about $190,000 more for electricity and Central Falls about $19,000 more, according to cost projections.
For large electricity users, such as Toray Plastics (America) Inc. in North Kingstown and Polytop Corp. in Slatersville, that translates into potentially millions of dollars in additional charges over the next decade. They and a number of other businesses oppose the project.
Deepwater Wind expects to announce the turbine supplier for the Block Island Wind Farm by the end of this year. Deepwater Wind plans to use the newest commercial 6-megawatt turbines, which are designed specially for the offshore environment.