Wind energy is going off-shore: The Block Island Wind Farm has enough power for almost an entire island

The word offshore can mean many things to different people, but for The Block Island Power Company, it signals the start of a new wave of practical renewable energy use. The company has just successfully launched the Block Island Wind Farm, the first commercial offshore wind farm in the U.S., and now it’s looking to serve even more customers elsewhere.

The idea behind the first offshore wind farm is simple: take the same basic principles that make wind farms work on land, and adapt them so that they can work on water as well. The end result, in this case, is a source of almost enough electricity to power an entire island with 2,000 customers.

This was made possible by the work of the researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) from the Department of Energy, who are now looking forward to the future of offshore wind farming. They are currently working closely with the National Wind Technology Center (NWTC) for its expertise in engineering and analysis to help with their operations.

How it works

The Block Island Wind Farm is located 2.8 miles off the coast of Rhode Island. It has five Halide 6 MW turbines that produce a total of 30 MW of power, and powers most of the island while also delivering excess energy through undersea cables that go to the mainland. Though the initial investment in it was costly — it is estimated to cost around $300 million — there are long-term cost benefits of as much as $25 per month per capita, according to the NREL.

According to NWTC Director Daniel Laird, “looking toward offshore wind resources is essential” as the U.S. seeks to bring “more efficient, reliable, and cost-effective renewable energy generation online.” There is definitely a lot of complex math and engineering problems — not to mention regulatory and policy hurdles — involved but again, expert say there will be many long-term benefits.

This is surely a welcome change, considering the numerous issues that plagued land-based wind farms in the past. In some cases, their mere existence can be the cause of problems, because wind farms that aren’t properly maintained tend to eventually turn into abandoned installations, which “litter” the landscape.

As customers of the Block Island Wind Farm thrive, people in other cities are looking forward to getting their own offshore wind farms as well. Massachusetts in particular has already passed energy diversity legislation in 2016, which calls for the production of 1,600 MW of power from offshore wind farms by June 2027. Meanwhile, New York’s Governor Cuomo has set a target of 2,400 MW of offshore wind power by 2030. These kinds of initiatives are considered “encouraging signals” by the NREL, according to Energy Markets and Policy Analyst Philipp Beiter.

Issues to deal with

Of course, for all of this to become possible, there are many obstacles that need to be overcome. For one thing, to keep the ball rolling in this regard basically means to keep pushing on to build an entirely new industry. The full system will need specialized manufacturing and installation for parts like the substructure, towers, and the blades, according to the NREL. New plants with highly specialized facilities means new highly-skilled technicians as well.

They’ve already got a lot of these problems solved in Europe, as it turns out. NREL Manager of Offshore Wind Walter Musial says that the offshore industry there is “booming” with more than 13,000 MW of power installed over the past 15 years. Europe has dedicated supply chains and a fleet of large vessels, some of which were actually used in the construction of the Block Island Wind Farm.

The installation of the Block Island Wind Farm is a step in the right direction for the industry of offshore wind farming, but for now, the U.S. has a lot of catching up to do.

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