by by Matt Surka

illustration by by Candice Chu

It is the largest state-sponsored project in Rhode Island's history, and it's being proposed during extremely tight financial times. As Katie Okamoto B'09 reported in the October 9 Independent, Governor Donald Carcieri recently unveiled a $1.5 billion offshore wind farm project. In light of new technologies that enable the construction of wind turbines further offshore, opponents of the wind farm are swapping out their traditional not-in-my-backyard arguments for a broader stance against wind power in general. The economic stakes are very high for Rhode Island, and opposition groups like Rhode Island Alliance for Clean Energy and American Wind Energy Opposition continue to raise concerns about the promise of wind.

Rhode Island has commissioned a New Jersey company, Deepwater Wind, to fund, build and manage the farm. Andrew Dzykewicz, the governor's chief energy adviser, told the Providence Journal in a September 25 interview that building the wind farm is slated to take only four or five years. The energy it produces should cost homeowners between seven and nine cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to National Grid's rate of 12.4 cents for the same amount. Each of Deepwater Wind's turbines will be capable of producing three to four megawatts of power, and collectively, the 100-turbine array will pump out around 385 megawatts, or a predicted 15 percent of Rhode Island's energy demand. The wind farm will also supply power to Block Island, hopefully reducing the island's historically high price of electricity--currently the highest rates in the US.
According to Saul Kaplan, executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, Deepwater Wind will employ around 800 new workers, contributing $60 million in annual wages during the construction period. Approval of the project requires no new legislation, and the company has not asked for any tax breaks that are not already included in state law, Dzykewicz told the Providence Journal. Additionally, Deepwater Wind's office site--most likely the Quonset Business Park in North Kingstown--will remain a permanent fixture in Rhode Island's industry, serving as the company's headquarters and construction yard for the region. With a foothold in Rhode Island, Deepwater Wind hopes to begin spreading its technology throughout the East Coast, steadily decreasing New England's oil consumption.
The advantages of a Rhode Island wind farm meet broad expectations of renewable energy sources: the turbine-matrix promises cheap electricity with no smog, radioactive waste, reliance on oil or expiration date. Deepwater Wind's project does not seek to replace conventional power plants all at once, but it will make retiring some of them plausible in the years to come. Despite all this, wind farm opposition groups, such as Rhode Island Alliance for Clean Energy and American Wind Energy Opposition, have remained vocal.
In protesting the use of large-scale wind power, resistance groups have traditionally focused on the many drawbacks of living near a wind farm. On its website, The Rhode Island Alliance for Clean Energy, a nonprofit collective of Newport businesspeople and concerned residents, extensively describes the adverse effects of wind farms on property values, tourism, the health of nearby residents, and local wildlife populations: birds, bats and--in the case of coastline wind farms--lobsters and quahogs. In multiple dissertations on "wind turbine syndrome," Nina Piermont, MD, PhD, describes how the flicker and hum of a wind farm can contribute to headaches, dizziness, insomnia and a host of other ailments. The credibility of these claims doesn't need to be considered in the case of Rhode Island, as the proposed wind farm will be too far away to impact the lives of residents and local wildlife.
Deepwater Wind will build its turbines 15-20 miles offshore, where they can neither be seen nor heard from the mainland. To reduce their farms' footprint size, most wind power companies plant their turbines on top of narrow shafts called monopoles. Deepwater Wind's chief executive officer, Chris Brown explained to the Providence Journal that this style of construction functions on both land and water, but it proves unfeasible at depths greater than 75 feet. Deepwater Wind, on the other hand, uses an oilrig-style 'jacket' approach to turbine assembly, one which effectively doubles the operating depth to 150 feet. Of the seven firms that competed for Rhode Island's wind farm contract, Deepwater Wind was alone in offering this new method, which greatly contributed to their winning the bid.
But is wind reliable enough to sink so much money into? In his essay "A Problem with Wind Power," Vermont science writer Eric Rosenbloom calls into question the efficiency of wind farms. He cites Denmark as an example of a place that in trying to rely on wind power gave up large amounts of money in exchange for limited results. As of 2006, Denmark had over 6,000 turbines that produced 19 percent of the country's energy needs. Despite this, no conventional power plant in Denmark was ever shut down. Unlike oil, wind is an intermittently available resource; it has a habit of cutting out when it's most needed. Nonrenewable energy sources in Denmark continue to burn and belch smog as usual, since the wind power needed to be backed up by traditional power plants. Today, the Danish government has begun withdrawing subsidies from wind power corporations as they have realized the ineffectiveness of wind power.
Though Rosenbloom brings up some legitimate shortcomings of wind farms, his evidence leaves plenty of room for debate. The Long Island Offshore Wind Initiative, a New York-based coalition of regional and national environmental groups, points out that governments are reducing subsidies to wind power because doing so represents "what is supposed to happen with any industry as it reaches a sustainable point in any market." Spanish wind generating capacity, for example, increased by 33 percent in the two years following a 2002 subsidy cut. In an interview with the New York Times, Euan C. Blauvelt, research director of ABS Energy Research, said that despite wind power's many shortcomings, its worldwide energy contribution is growing by about 26.3 percent annually.
The United States ranks third in wind power usage worldwide, but the formidable growth rate of its wind farm industry may soon allow it to surpass even Germany and Spain. Britain, Italy, Canada, Japan and the Netherlands have also recently become major players in wind energy production. Despite wind power's drawbacks, nations have continued to increase their investment in it--perhaps in anticipation of a future where wind serves as a stable source of energy. A look at the upcoming innovations of firms like Deepwater Wind shows that reason to hope indeed exists.
New technologies currently in the works may resolve the doubt many have in wind power's promise. By having the technologies to build far offshore, Deepwater Wind will not only assuage the traditional aesthetic and environmental concerns of wind farms: placing turbines far away from land also enables them to take advantage of stronger, more constant winds. By compiling historical data, TrueWind Solutions, an independent company hired by the US Department of Energy, estimates wind strength by region, generating maps based on their findings. For Rhode Island, these ratings increase in correlation with distance from shore, climbing from "fair" at the coastline all the way to "outstanding"--the second highest possible rating--at 15 miles off shore, which is right around where Deepwater Wind hopes to build its farm. Additionally, Sway, a Norwegian company, is among a small number of firms designing prototypes for wind turbines that float. If these models prove successful, building wind farms in deep water could get significantly cheaper and faster in years to come.
Other ways to make wind power more reliable are also in development. In early 2008, Reuters reported that Xcel Energy was designing a wind power-storing battery that could be charged during periods of low energy consumption--typically during the night--and used whenever necessary. When charged, each battery could power 500 homes for over seven hours, which would help smooth out the unreliable flow of wind power. The company received a $1 million grant from Minnesota's Renewable Energy Fund and said they would begin testing in October. A UK professor, Seamus Garvey, received a three-year grant from German company E.ON after designing a kind of battery that takes advantage of the high water pressure at the bottom of the ocean. In Garvey's model, surplus wind power pumps air into massive flexible bags on the ocean floor, where it gets compressed and can later be released through a turbine, generating electricity.
In the 70s and 80s, when large-scale wind farms were new, the wind power debate tended to provoke a significant emotional response: people chose a side and defended it tooth-and-nail. These days, as Blauvelt told the New York Times, the kind of fervent opposition characteristic of The Rhode Island Alliance for Clean Energy and other resistance groups is slowly disappearing, being replaced by careful, tempered skepticism. "The arguments are becoming more rational," Blauvelt said. Christian Kjaer, the chief executive of the European Wind Energy Association told the Times that he agreed with Blauvelt. He called the continuing rise in wind power worldwide a "second wave" of renewable energy. In the first wave, proponents of wind power viewed it idealistically, as a "clean, even elegant alternative to fossil fuels." When its flaws became apparent, countries recoiled and critics flourished. Now, analysts are beginning to examine wind power more reasonably, as an energy source "with advantages and drawbacks, like any other." With gas prices soaring and Earth's oil supply ever dwindling, keeping electricity supply on par with demand may soon depend on whether Deepwater-style solutions can do enough to mitigate those drawbacks.

Ah, yes. MATT SURKA B'11 lost his pet quahog to a wind farm.