Harnessing Renewable Offshore Wind Energy for Rhode Island

Our planet stands at an environmental crossroads:  We need to achieve drastic reductions in carbon emissions to slow or halt climate change before it’s too late. To accomplish that goal we need to transition to a renewable energy economy based on sustainable business principles. Yet at the same time we need to foster economic growth, keep energy prices affordable, and create new job opportunities for Rhode Islanders. We often see those goals standing in tension with one another. But what if we shift our perspective to see them as aligned?  What if we turn the rapid transition to a renewable energy economy into an opportunity for our State and our region to jump start economic prosperity?

I sat down with business leaders on a summer morning at Seven Stars Bakery to talk about economic development. Many voiced the concern that Rhode Island has ceded leadership in one industry after another – ship building, jewelry, etc. – as our manufacturing base has declined and companies have moved elsewhere. In fact, they argued that we remain the leader in only one industry: scrap metal. It was not an inspiring conversation.

Opportunity Awaits

Yet we have an opportunity right now to partner with a burgeoning new industry:  Ocean-based renewable wind energy. The only operating wind farm in North America sits right off of Block Island – those 5 turbines originally called Deepwater Wind. Those wind turbines cut the cost of electricity on Block Island by more than half and supply the mainland with supplemental power at competitive prices. We are the Ocean State, with abundant coastline, the best deep water ports on the East Coast, and hundreds of years of expertise in ship building, marine architecture, and ocean-based commerce. We should be leading the way toward dominance in ocean-based wind energy.

So far our track record has not been good. Authority to approve projects, purchase power, and regulate the industry is splintered between Rhode Island Energy (the utility monopoly, formerly National Grid), the Public Utilities Commission which regulates electricity rates and profits for RI Energy, and the RI state government. Even at the state level, we do not have a coherent approach to working with this emerging industry. At the regional level, the lack of effective collaboration among New York and the New England states allows the wind developers to play states off against each other. And that doesn’t even count the many federal agencies that have authority over ocean-based wind development (Interior, Energy, Defense, EPA), a dysfunctional Congress, and a host of environmental advocacy groups.

Rhode Island needs to be a partner to the wind energy, not a customer

The core problem is that we see ourselves as the customers of the wind farm developers erecting the turbines off our coastline, rather than as partners in a new venture that can transform our regional economy, create thousands of jobs, and enable us to achieve our ambitious goals for eliminating our debilitating reliance on fossil fuels. We are far too focussed on getting the cheapest price for electricity while we ignore the benefits of being home to a growing industry.

When I was a small boy the US Navy dominated the Rhode Island economy. Thousands of small businesses served the Navy’s needs from restaurants to dry cleaning, from ship building to equipment maintenance. When President Nixon pulled the Navy out of Quonset and Newport in the mid-1970’s, that was a devastating blow to the entire economy of our state – one from which we are still struggling to recover.

In fact now our incredible deep water port at Quonset – with highway, rail, and airport access – is used as one of the primary ports for importing fossil fuel powered vehicles. From my home in Jamestown, I watch every day as giant “Ro-Ro’s” steam into Quonset carrying thousands of foreign-made gas guzzling cars that will be on our roads spewing pollutants and emitting carbon for 15 years or more. What an undignified end for a facility that was designed to protect America’s shores and maintain the US Navy. How much more fitting would it be for Quonset to be the epicenter of offshore wind development for the Northeast – the one sure path to making our nation free of reliance on foreign oil and secure in reliable, home grown sources of power.

Offshore wind should be an engine of growth in Rhode Island

Offshore wind could become that new engine that drives Rhode Island’s economy if we can shift our perspective to that of a partner to this rapidly growing new industry.

Rumors abound that the leading offshore wind developers are ready to pack it up and go back to Europe where they understand how to deal with the more centralized government authorities. In European countries there is a more coordinated government function for everything from permitting to siting to pricing to purchasing electricity. When a European government gives the green light to a project, the developer can move forward with confidence that they have the right approvals and offtake agreements to secure capital and start putting steel in the water.

By contrast our scattered sources of authority are beyond confusing. Many in the offshore wind industry believe it is impossible to work effectively with the many-headed hydra that passes for our “government.” And well-financed political opponents from entrenched fossil fuel corporations work hard to keep in that way. The fossil fuel overlords buy influence at every level of government through our diseased campaign finance systems and fund NIMBY opposition groups that pose as environmental defenders.

The Winds of Change

The coming decade will witness the transition to a renewable energy economy. We have a choice whether to be passive witnesses or active partners in that revolution.

Imagine Rhode Island as the renewable energy hub of the Northeast, playing a vital role in the construction, deployment and maintenance of hundreds of giant wind turbines generating power from the forces of nature just off our coastline. A hub where innovations in offshore wind energy not only power our state but also set standards for others to emulate. And just as the Navy did for decades, that core industry will spin off dozens of new businesses in battery technology, advanced DC cables, transformers, grid improvements, electric vehicles and aircraft and all of the new technologies that await us in a sustainable future.

The opportunity is right there for us to seize. Let’s make the commitment and go “all in” so Rhode Island can lead the renewable energy revolution.