Federal and state officials take a boat trip this morning to check out the start of construction on Deepwater Wind’s Block Island Wind Farm. The project has broad support from environmental groups, fishermen, the Narragansett tribe, and others. But it’s a point of contention for Block Island residents.
On Mohegan Bluffs at the southeast corner of Block Island, a historic lighthouse perches high above the Atlantic Ocean. The site boasts panoramic views of the sea and the island’s coastline, but on this day there’s something else too: A large pair of steel structures and a crane dotting the horizon.
“It's an event,” said year-round resident Peter Baute. “It's a historic happening.”
Baute watches the construction for what will be the nation’s first offshore wind farm. It’s a pilot project three miles off the coast that will produce enough energy to power 17,000 homes, including the entire island.
“That’s interesting,” he said. “There’s two platforms out there. Let's just take a look.”
Baute narrows his eyes as he lifts up binoculars. He sees a tugboat pulling foundations that will anchor the turbines underwater.
Baute, a retired physician, thinks the wind farm is a step toward reducing carbon emissions.
“They affect people’s lungs,” said Baute. “There’s a certain relationship to cancers of various kinds, including breast cancer. There’s like a stream of air borne pollution that comes over this part of the country from the Midwest. And to the extent we can diminish that, we are going to have an impact on the health of people on this part of the country. It’s important.”
A few feet away, Ray Torrey said he and his wife are eager for the energy savings the wind farm promises to bring. The project is just five turbines, but it’s expected to reduce electricity bills on the island by about 40 percent.
“We don’t have any air conditioning. And our bill is about $500 a month. I think the last time I checked, we are paying 56 [or] 57 cents per kilowatt-hour. And I think on the mainland they pay 12 or 13 maybe 15 [cents] now. So we’re paying almost four times as the people on the mainland pay.”
Block Island has one of the highest electricity rates in the country because they have to ferry a million gallons of diesel oil every year to fuel generators. The wind farm comes with a 20-mile underwater cable that will connect that island to the mainland electric grid. That way the island can draw electricity even when the wind farm isn't producing energy.
Down the road, Torrey expects the cable will have another advantage: upgrading the island’s slow internet connection.
“We can’t stream a movie – it just doesn’t work,” he said. “We rely on old-fashioned, almost obsolete, technology. And with a cable we are hoping to get fiber optic technology that will allow us to step into the 21st century.”
But not every year-round resident agrees. Four miles north of the iconic Mohegan Bluffs, Edith Blane remains skeptical.
“It’s not just costs,” said Blane. “I mean, I’m from here. All my life, I’ve looked at the bluffs. There’s been nothing between the bluffs on Block Island and Portugal. And now we’re going to see these things out there.”
Blane has lively debates about the wind farm with her son, who supports it. She says he and others keep telling her how beautiful the wind turbines are going to be.
“I don’t think so, because they are going to have bells, whistles, lights and you know that they are,” she said. “So that the beauty, and the calm, and the stillness, and the loveliness of a summer night – it’s never going to be the same again.”
Blane is not alone.
“I’m opposed to this project for one reason: costs,” said Mary Jane Balser, who owns the only grocery store on Block Island.
“I am the largest user by far. Why? Because we are open year-round and [with] all the refrigeration, we are the largest business and user on Block Island,” said Balser. She’s concerned that her electric bills will remain high even when the wind farm goes online.
“It’s ludicrous that we would be spending on the dollars that have projected—and trust me, it’ll be a lot more than that when they’re done—when you can have a cable that can service us for less than $30 million,” said Blane.
National Grid has agreed to buy the wind farm's surplus under a 20-year contract, starting at a rate of 24.4 cents per kilowatt hour for the first year. Then it'll go up by 3.5% percent each year. The utility company will also build, own, and operate the underwater transmission cable. And the cost of construction will show up in a rate increase for customers. National Grid can't calculate the rate increases until the wind farm is operating. But it anticipates that a household using 500 kilowatt hours per month will see an increase of less than $2 per month.
Balser harbors doubts about those rate projections. “And I’d rather pay what I am paying now than what this end result is going to be, because I think that it’s not going to be what everyone thinks it is.”
She thinks state officials have been hoodwinked by what she calls buzzwords like “green” energy. “Are we like lemmings that we run over the edge to be the first to have a wind farm offshore?”
Back on Mohegan Bluffs, Peter Baute admits the wind farm is a delicate topic. In this small community some residents steer clear of discussion if they know they don’t see eye to eye. But Baute believes the majority of year-round residents support the project.
“The world has to get away from coal and oil,” said Baute. “This is one of the ways it's going to happen. It's not the only way, but this is a start. And we've never done this in the United States before. This is the first time anybody's done this. Europe is far ahead of us. So I’m thrilled to see this happening.”
Representatives from the federal government plan to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the project, noting the Block Island Wind Farm as evidence of the Obama Administration’s commitment to renewable energy. But on Block Island debate over the project continues.
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Note: Rhode Island Public Radio has corrected the spelling of two names in this article. It is Edith Blane, not Blaine. And it is Mary Jane Balser, not Blaser. We apologize for the mistake.