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America's First Offshore Wind Farm Goes Online

By Kit Kennedy

With the flip of a switch Monday, the country's first offshore wind power project began commercial operations. That's something to celebrate—and it's only the beginning for this abundant energy resource!

An American First: The nation's first offshore wind power project, located off the Rhode Island coast, can be the first of many, as long as federal and state governments continue to lead with smart policies.

Developed by U.S.-based Deepwater Wind, the Block Island Wind Farm is located three miles southeast of Block Island, in Rhode Island waters and features five 6-megawatt turbines—enough to power 17,000 homes; transmission cables connect the turbines to Block Island and the mainland. Four of the turbines went online Monday and Deepwater expects the fifth to be operating next month once a minor fix is made.

Previously, Block Island relied on an electricity plant that burned polluting and expensive diesel oil. By displacing that plant, the Block Island Wind Farm will not only improve public health and air quality, but also reduce the cost of electricity for Block Islanders by as much as 40 percent.

Deepwater employed more than 300 local workers in the construction process, including welders, ironworkers, electricians and carpenters, with vessels moving in and out of four Rhode Island ports. The massive steel support structures for the turbines were built by Gulf Island Fabrication, a Louisiana- and Texas-based offshore oil and gas platform manufacturer.

And these jobs will be only the beginning, if the U.S. continues to commit to offshore wind power. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that by 2050, with the right policies in place, the offshore wind industry could support 160,000 jobs here in America.

Deepwater worked hard, with stakeholders and others, to build support for the project and minimize conflicts. And the Natural Resources Defense Council was proud to join them, other environmental groups and the New England Aquarium in developing specific steps to protect endangered North Atlantic Right Whales in the area during project construction; Deepwater will follow similar protective measures in building other offshore wind projects in the area.

NRDC is proud to have joined other environmental groups, the New England Aquarium, and developer Deepwater Wind in developing steps to protect endangered North Atlantic Right Whales during construction. That's me visiting during the initial construction.

Block Island is Just the Start for Wind Power

At least ten other U.S. offshore wind projects are already poised to move forward. And soon, the Long Island Power Authority, with the support of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is slated to approve a contract for a 90-megawatt offshore wind project 30 miles northeast of Montauk.

The federal agency in charge of offshore wind power siting—the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management—has already granted 11 leases to offshore wind developers in designated "wind energy areas" along the Atlantic coast. These developers include American companies such as Deepwater Wind and Fishermen's Energy, as well as leading European developers like DONG Energy. Overall, the U.S. Department of Energy sees the potential to develop 86 gigawatts of offshore wind power capacity by 2050, enough to power 31 million homes.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management 's next offshore wind leasing auction is scheduled for Dec. 15 for the New York wind energy area, an 80,000-acre area located 12 miles south of the Rockaways and Long Beach. New York's clean energy agency, NYSERDA, will participate in that auction as part of an innovative plan for the state to guide offshore wind development and promote competition.

Next up: The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is slated to auction leasing rights to an offshore wind energy area on Dec. 15, as offshore wind power continues to make progress here in the U.S. after decades of success in Europe. U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

Offshore Wind Costs are Coming Down

Eighty-two offshore wind power projects in a dozen European countries now supply electricity to 8 million European homes. As offshore wind in Europe has scaled up, a robust supply chain has developed and technology has advanced, resulting in plummeting costs there. In fact, prices have dropped by 28 percent since the second half of 2015 alone and continue to fall.

The U.S. offshore wind industry will also experience these lower costs as more projects are built and the U.S. creates its own supply chain. In some areas, such as Long Island's South Fork where electricity prices are high and land for generation or transmission is scarce, offshore wind power is already cost-competitive. The Long Island Power Authority, for instance, has stated that the South Fork offshore wind project is the lowest cost option for that region's needs.

Offshore wind will add economic value in other ways, too. Eighty percent of the electricity used in the U.S. is consumed in coastal states, much of it in population centers close to offshore winds. By avoiding the need for lengthy and expensive new transmission infrastructure, offshore wind can reduce system costs. And because offshore wind power produces the most electricity when demand is high—on hot summer afternoons and cold winter days and nights—it can help make the electric grid more reliable and lower wholesale electricity costs, which skyrocket when demand soars. Offshore wind also produces health benefits by displacing fossil fuel power generation, not only protecting our communities but avoiding an array of health-related costs.

Moving Forward

Because of its jobs, infrastructure, clean energy and public health benefits, offshore wind has won bipartisan support at the state level. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, for instance, signed legislation this summer that will lead to the construction of 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind capacity off Massachusetts within a decade. New York's Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has committed to making offshore wind a key part of his plan to get 50 percent of New York's electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

While offshore wind generation is just beginning, America's onshore wind industry continues to surge, providing almost 5 percent of U.S. electricity generation last year and surpassing 75 gigawatts of total capacity this year.

During the campaign, President-elect Donald Trump vowed to strengthen American infrastructure and create jobs. Investing in clean energy—from energy efficiency to land-based wind to solar and offshore wind power—is the smartest way to do this. For progress on offshore wind to continue at the right pace, the federal government must continue to be an active partner with states like Massachusetts and New York in siting offshore wind infrastructure. As the new administration and Congress take office, the Natural Resources Defense Council will work with other clean energy stakeholders to build the case for this partnership and all the benefits it can produce.

Check out this new video about the Block Island Wind Farm:

Kit Kennedy oversees many Natural Resources Defense Council projects relating to energy efficiency, renewable energy and global-warming solutions.

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