NEW SHOREHAM – The Rhode Island Fast Ferry backed out of its berth at Quonset Point and chugged south past Jamestown, a brisk wind blustering across top deck as it made its way past oyster farms, historical homes and other features of Rhode Island's coastal environment along Narragansett Bay's west passage.
The coalition New England for Offshore Wind chartered the ferry last Tuesday for a trip out to the Block Island Wind Farm, allowing a mix of about 100 politicians, lobbyists, consultants and renewable-energy advocates from around New England to see five of the United States' seven functioning offshore wind turbines up close.
Among all the curious visitors from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, three local legislators were also on board, checking out the turbines and soaking up information relevant to their constituents.
State Rep. Michelle McGaw, D-Portsmouth, and state Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, both represent communities in Newport County, and state Sen. Alana DiMario represents North Kingstown, Narragansett and Block Island – the Rhode Island communities so far most directly affected by offshore wind.
DiMario pointed out that, in addition to her constituents on Block Island who receive their power from the farm, her district also encompasses Quonset, where Ørsted's 100-turbine Revolution Wind Project intends to land its transmission line, and Galilee in Narragansett, where many of the state's commercial fishermen dock their vessels.
She considers the Block Island farm to be a success, and pointed out the island's residents will not feel the squeeze many Rhode Island residents will experience from significantly increased fuel costs this winter.
'People have a lot of questions'
McGaw, who represents Portsmouth, Tiverton and Little Compton, was appreciative of the opportunity to learn more about offshore wind and see a functioning wind farm in person. She said offshore wind is an increasingly common topic she hears about from her constituents, particularly in the wake of the Mayflower Wind application to run a transmission cable up the Sakonnet River and across Island Park in Portsmouth.
"People have a lot of questions," she said. "People are cautious. I'm trying to learn and share as much information as possible."
The country's first offshore wind farm – encompassing five GE Haliade turbines, each producing 6 megawatts of power from a 330-foot tower topped by three 240-foot blades – is situated 3.8 miles off the coast of Block Island and is owned by Danish offshore wind titan Ørsted, which acquired the project from original developer Deepwater Wind for $510 million in 2018.
The five turbines, which were state of the art at the time of their construction but will appear puny in comparison to the 16-megawatt models that will soon be installed in offshore wind farms being built off the coast of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, provide all of Block Island's energy, replacing diesel generators that used to burn more than a million gallons of fuel annually.
The farm's success has helped position Rhode Island as a regional and national leader in offshore wind, just as renewable energy and its attendant industries stand poised to expand over the next few years.
How does the Block Island wind farm affect sea life?
Among several speakers on board the ferry, each delivering short remarks as the boat slowly circled the turbines, Capt. Dave Monti stood out. Monti has been fishing Rhode Island's waters for more than 50 years, runs charters out of Wickford and writes a weekly fishing report for The Providence Journal.
He acknowledged that while many anglers who ply the waters of Block Island were apprehensive, or even directly opposed to the wind farm when it was proposed, the results of a seven-year fishing study mandated by the state and funded by the wind farm developers published in the peer-reviewed ICES Journal of Marine Science in May offered reassuring results.
The study showed no significant negative effect on fish that live near the bottom of the sea – demersal fish – or among invertebrate populations during the farm's construction and operation. It also found that the farm has brought higher concentrations of Atlantic cod and black sea bass to the waters immediately surrounding the turbines.
Some of the fish caught in the study also had mussels in their stomachs, indicating they might be eating mussels growing on the turbine foundations.
Rhode Island at the leading edge in wind energy
Euer, who represents Jamestown and Newport, explained that she moved to Rhode Island to pursue her law degree in part because of the maritime-law specialty offered by Roger Williams University and its relevance to the legal processes required by the development of offshore wind leases.
She played a key role in Rhode Island's draft RFP for offshore wind, a solicitation for an offshore wind procurement of 600 to 1,000 megawatts due to be issued by Gov. Dan McKee's office on Oct. 15 at the conclusion of a 30-day public comment period.
The RFP was mandated by the Affordable Clean Energy Security Act passed by the General Assembly in July. The Assembly also passed in July a law requiring 100% of Rhode Island's electricity needs be met with renewable energy by 2033.
Contextualized by Rhode Island's participation in the Federal-State Offshore Wind Implementation Partnership recently launched by the Biden administration, which calls for the production of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy in the United States by 2030, it's clear Rhode Island sits at the tip of a multibillion-dollar spear that is about to revolutionize coastal economies and state power grids.
Off the coast of Block Island, those who look closely can catch a glimpse of the future.