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First US Offshore Wind Farm to Open Off Rhode Island Coast in 2016

Across the United States, there are more than 49,800 wind turbines and 69,471 megawatts of installed wind capacity, according to the latest quarterly report from the American Wind Energy Association.

However, while the U.S. is one of the global leaders in land-based wind power, it continues to lag behind other countries with regard to utilizing offshore wind. Currently, there are no operational turbines producing wind power in U.S. waters.

That is set to change in 2016 when the first wind farm will be commissioned 3 miles southeast of Block Island, Rhode Island.

Construction on the 30-megawatt, $290-million project began back in the spring and Deepwater Wind, the developer responsible for building the farm, says it's on track to be generating power by the fourth quarter of 2016.

According to the company's website, the five-turbine farm will connect Block Island to the mainland for the first time with an underground cable and is expected to supply power to 17,200 Rhode Island homes by generating approximately 125,000 Megawatt-hours (MWh) per year.

A construction milestone was celebrated in July as five steel foundation jackets and deck platforms were placed in the water. The implementation of steel in the water was a significant moment, not just for the project itself, but for the entire offshore wind industry.

"The Block Island wind farm really is just the start of a new industry and we're excited to be at the forefront of that here in the Ocean State," Meaghan Wims, a spokesperson for Deepwater Wind, said.

Work on the facility is expected to resume in the spring. In the meantime, the turbine towers are being manufactured in Providence, Rhode Island.

One of the bigger challenges of the building phase has been stormy weather, Wims said. When it comes to withstanding severe storms, Wims said that the equipment Deepwater Wind used to construct the wind farm is built to withstand a 100-year storm.

In 2014, a Stanford University professor published a study that said thousands of offshore wind turbines could help lessen hurricane storm surges and wind speeds.

The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council selected the location after organizing a thorough ocean mapping initiative, Wims said. Ultimately, it was determined that the Block Island location would be best to take advantage of strong coastal winds.

As a result of the wind power, Block Island will receive about 90 percent of its energy needs. If the wind farm is under maintenance or not producing enough power, the mainland grid will serve the island. Diesel power is the current source of the island's energy.

Europe utilizes substantial offshore wind energy. Through the first six months of 2015, 584 new turbines were connected while 15 wind farms were under construction, according to the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). In total, more than 3,000 turbines are in operation as part of 82 wind farms located in European waters.

Jeremy Firestone, director of the Center for Carbon-free Power Integration at the University of Delaware, said there are a host of reasons why the U.S. hasn't yet built an offshore wind farm.

Europe had a head start thanks to an earlier commitment to climate change mitigation, Firestone said. While the land-based industry began in the U.S., it quickly shifted overseas. Denmark installed the first offshore wind farm in 1991, while it wasn't until 2001 when the U.S. had its first proposal, he said.

A complicated regulatory regime has made it difficult for developers to move forward on projects while low natural gas prices have made wind energy more expensive by comparison, he said.

Trying to find the best space on which to build can be challenging as well, not only to gauge the perfect location to maximize wind resources, but also to maintain habits for marine wildlife, to keep a designated distance from shipping lanes and to avoid interfering with commercial and recreational fishing interests.

"I think the ocean is a busier place than people imagine," Firestone said.

In September, the Department of Energy (DOE) released a report that detailed strong progress for the U.S. offshore wind market. Including the construction of the Block Island Wind Farm, there are 21 projects totaling 15,650 megawatts, in the planning and development stage off the coast of the U.S., the DOE said.

The market for offshore wind has large growth potential, as it is a major source of clean, renewable energy for coastal states where 80 percent of the nation's energy demand comes from. The DOE's report also cited the ability for wind turbines to be placed farther offshore and in deeper water where they can experience stronger and more consistent winds.

The Boston Globe reported in November that DONG Energy, a Denmark-based company, has proposed to build a wind farm, which could eventually become the largest in the U.S., with a proposed location 15 miles south of Martha's Vineyard. Meanwhile, Seattle-based Trident Winds is seeking to build the first offshore wind farm in California and recently submitted plans to the city of Morro Bay, located on the central coast.

While the industry has made progress, Firestone said he doesn't believe there will be many more wind farms installed this decade, as many of the projects are still on the drawing board or currently stalled.

"The federal government has leased various areas offshore, but it doesn't mean that much has actually happened there," he said.

The 468-megawatt Cape Wind offshore wind farm was originally on track to become the first major project in the U.S. but has been beset by financial issues with utility companies and is now in jeopardy. Cape Wind was scheduled to begin work on the 130-turbine farm last May in federal waters off the coast of Cape Cod.

Planned offshore wind farms in Oregon, Virginia and New Jersey have been selected to receive federal funding, but these projects are in various states of development.

Even the Block Island project has not been without issues. The AP reported in October that the wind farm experienced numerous health and safety issues in the beginning weeks of construction.

In order for offshore wind to advance in the U.S., there needs to be a market for projects that could lead to an industry, Firestone said. If that happens, then things should develop along the lines of what's happened in Europe where there is a lot of manufacturing and job creation, he said.

Wims said Block Island is just the start. Deepwater Wind is currently planning a larger utility-scale project with over 200 turbines that would serve a larger territory, including multiple markets in New England as well as Long Island, New York.

"We know that everyone is watching closely what we're doing here, and we really do believe it's the start of something much bigger," Wims said. "It's certainly generated a lot of attention for the potential of offshore wind and we really feel like offshore wind, for really the entire East Coast, could be a big part of our country's energy future."


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kevin Byrne at Kevin.Byrne@accuweather.com, follow him on Twitter at @Accu_Kevin. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.