By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — When the Block Island Wind Farm officially goes online this month only four of its five offshore turbines will be operating.
Turbine 2 broke down in early November during routine testing, Deepwater Wind reported during its final monthly status report on Nov. 29. A weeklong inspection revealed a metal object in a gap between the turbine’s generator and direct-drive system. The object turned out to be a 6-inch drill bit left behind during assembly of the 6-megawatt General Electric Haliade turbine, which was built at GE’s factory in Saint-Nazaire, France.
GE bought the turbine facility when it acquired the energy business of Alstom in November 2015 for nearly $10 billion.
Deepwater Wind president Chris Van Beek said the malfunction is a minor delay. The turbine will be running again in January, after damaged magnets in the generator are replaced. New magnets weigh about 60 pounds apiece and will be raised manually up the 330-foot-high tower to the generator housing.
Van Beek said the repair is covered under warranty and GE will pay the cost. GE has a 15-year contract to maintain the turbines, which are estimated to run for 20 years.
One flawed turbine isn't unusual for a new wind farm with 30 or 40 windmills but rare for a project with five turbines, said Van Beek, a 25-year veteran of offshore oil and gas construction.
He noted that the turbines were already providing a benefit to fishermen. The underwater foundations are attracting sea life. Boats aren't allowed to tie to the wind platforms or anchor near the turbines, but, “You can do all of the fishing you want,” Van Beek said.
“Fishing is taking place inside our wind farm in between the turbines without any problem,” he said.
Even with one turbine offline, the remaining four turbines will deliver electricity to the power grid when the system goes live in a few days. National Grid is already paying for electricity hitting the grid during the wind farm’s test phase. Deepwater Wind expects to flip the switch soon after it finalizes its power contract with ISO New England, the operator of the region’s power grid.
The Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) wasn't fazed by the setback and voted unanimously at its Nov. 29 meeting to approve final commercial operation of the Block Island Wind Farm. CRMC approval means that Deepwater Wind can begin getting paid 24.4 cents per kilowatt-hour for the renewable electricity. The rate increases 3.5 percent annually for 20 years. The final price will be 47.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. Residential customers currently pay 8.179 cents per kilowatt-hour. Initially, residential customer will be paying about $1.07 a month more for their electricity to subsidize the power-purchase agreement.
During the past two years, CRMC has received monthly status reports on the project from Deepwater Wind and ABS Consulting Inc., an independent evaluator of the project. Despite safety and construction incidents in 2015, the agency was largely impressed with the construction process.
ABS said it is satisfied that Deepwater Wind used “accepted engineering practices” in the installation of the turbines and the fabrication of parts. ABS, however, said Deepwater Wind must still observe the repairs to Turbine 2 and review a final report for the commissioning of the turbines. ABS also is waiting for a report on an unspecified issue with the flange.
“But we believe that there should be no issues with issuing the final approval,” said Ted Hofbauer, ABS director of renewables business development.
CRMC member Tony Affigne said the nation’s first offshore wind farm was held to high standards and extra scrutiny to reduce future potential tribulations and serve as a role model for future offshore wind projects.
The project has created positive news and an improved attitude among the public, helping counter the state’s occasional cynical attitude, he added.
“Every Rhode Islander I’ve talked to is proud that we are first,” Affigne said.
Rhode Islanders may be proud of the project, but they will also be paying a little more for their electricity. Electricity rates, though, are expected to drop significantly on Block Island. If there is sufficient wind, the turbines will supply electricity to the island, otherwise electricity will come from a new cable connected to the mainland. The wind farm and undersea electricity allows Block Island to end its reliance on power from highly polluting diesel generators. Block Island residents recently bought the Block Island Power Corporation and will keep one of the diesel generators as a backup power source.
State energy leaders say Rhode Island stepped up to help the offshore wind project succeed where others have failed. First, the state’s novel Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP), created by CRMC in 2008, offered a road map and expedited approval process. CRMC gave itself oversight of permitting and construction and the authority to hire an independent consultant, ABS, to review most of the hardware manufacturing and construction. Of course, it helped that the state also upheld Deepwater Wind's lucrative power-purchase agreement, one that endured court challenges and required legislative approval to get consent from the state Public Utilities Commission.
Although he’s not mentioned much in the press or by Deepwater Wind, former Gov. Donald Carcieri pushed hard for the project and the power-purchase agreement.
“Of course, he was a champion of the project from the beginning. He deserves a lot of credit,” Grybowski told ecoRI News earlier this year.
More wind projects
Despite the many hurdles for the Block Island Wind Farm project — it was up to four years behind original estimates to be operating — offshore wind projects are steadily advancing in the region. Deepwater Wind is moving ahead on several proposals between New York and Massachusetts.
Affigne expects that the Block Island Wind Farm isn't likely the last off the coast of Rhode Island. The region has the dual distinction of delivering some of the best winds in the country and a high rate of sea-level rise, which offers some urgency to cut climate emissions.
The combination means that the state has plenty of incentives, including a budding industry, to entice the offshore market. Van Beek said Deepwater Wind intends to remain in its downtown Providence office. The company is already working on a 14- to 15-turbine project in federal waters between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard, an area known as the Rhode Island-Massachusetts Wind Energy Area.
Van Beek said the project likely means assembly, welding and diving among other jobs for Rhode Island.
The Block Island site abuts two other large offshore wind projects. Denmark-based DONG Energy recently filed an application with ISO New England to build 800 megawatts of wind power in the designated wind area. Offshore MW, owned by Danish-based Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, is in partnership with Vineyard Power Cooperative to build a wind farm in the energy zone. Both projects are likely to connect to the mainland at Brayton Point in Somerset, Mass.
On Aug. 1, Massachusetts set a goal of developing 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind projects by 2027.