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America’s first offshore wind farm

Although offshore wind farms have been in use in Europe for several years, the US has just completed its first such operation, the Block Island Wind Farm, which lies off the coast of New Shoreham, Rhode Island. The towering machines stand a few miles from the shoreline, in a precise line across the seafloor. The blades are locked in place, but in October they will be turned loose to capture the power of the wind. Then, after several weeks of testing, America’s first offshore wind farm will begin pumping power into the New England electric grid.

By world standards, the Block Island Wind Farm is small—just five turbines capable of powering about 17,000 homes. Yet proponents of the project are hoping that this will mark the beginning of a new American industry. The idea of building turbines offshore, where strong wind can generate large amounts of power, has been viewed as a vital step toward a future based on renewable energy.

With the Block Island construction, many believe that offshore wind could be on the verge of rapid growth in the United States. Two dozen projects are already on the drawing board. State governments have been making new commitments for renewable power in recent months, driven by a sense of urgency about climate change. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York set a goal of getting 50 percent of the state’s power from renewable energy by 2030. In Massachusetts, Republican governor Charlie Baker signed a bipartisan bill ordering the state’s utilities to develop contracts with offshore wind farms for a large amount of power, 50 times the expected output of the Block Island Wind Farm. Other states are looking at the development of wind power, and studies by the Department of Energy suggest that thousands of turbines will eventually ring the US coastline.

Over the past 20 years, in the US has installed 50,000 wind turbines on land, which now supply roughly five percent of the nation’s electric power. The turbines are easier and cheaper to build on land but the wind is weaker on land and the power that the machines produce is intermittent. The stronger breezes out in the ocean produce consistent power.

The Block Island project has combined Rhode Island’s political will with New York’s financial expertise. Initial financing for the $300 million project came from the D.E. Shaw Group, an investment firm based in Manhattan. D.E. Shaw’s head of private equity investment Brian Martin, who saw offshore wind power as the next step in energy production, had already invested in onshore wind farms, and was convinced that renewable energy was poised to replace fossil fuels. He saw offshore wind power as the next major step forward. The turbines are about three miles off Block Island and can easily be seen from land, which drew opposition from some residents who thought they spoiled the view. But the majority of residents were supportive of the project since it will connect their power grid to the mainland for the first time, giving them a more reliable supply.

Deepwater Wind’s next project is a proposed wind farm 35 miles off the coast of Montauk, New York, which is meant to supply the power-hungry South Fork of Long Island.