This story by ESI Journalism Fellow Tristan Baurick was originally published in the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate, where it appears with additional photos and resources.
BLOCK ISLAND, R.I. – A tour bus spills a few dozen people at its usual stop beside a postcard-perfect lighthouse at the south end of this tiny green island. But the tourists walk right past the 148-year-old Block Island icon and begin snapping photos of the slender, sci-fi-looking structures spinning out in the sea.
“It’s like ‘Star Wars’ out there!” says Sam Nelson, of Ohio.
“It’d be so cool to see them up close,” fellow Ohioan Sharlene Warner adds.
The country’s first offshore wind farm has managed to cut power bills on Block Island, supply it with a surplus of clean, renewable energy, and — as an added perk — given its tourism-dependent economy an unexpected boost.
“It’s been very well received,” tour guide Lisa O’Neill said. “Half the people on our tours come just for the windmills.”
Built in 2016, the five turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm generate about 30 megawatts of electricity. That’s more than enough for the 1,000 year-round residents and the several thousand people who visit each summer. The remaining electricity is fed to the mainland power grid to supply about 1% of Rhode Island’s energy needs.
Several Louisiana companies with roots in the offshore oil and gas industry played leading roles in the farm’s design and construction. Now, those firms are looking forward to the offshore wind industry’s growth closer to home. And the same energy companies that plan to build hundreds of turbines on the East Coast are now eyeing the waters off Louisiana and Texas.
How might Louisianans react when turbines start popping up south of Lake Charles and Grand Isle? If Block Island offers a hint of what’s to come, people in the Bayou State might end up with an even split between pride and indifference.
“I’ve always thought they were a good idea,” said Eileen Keenan, whose property overlooks the wind farm. “I think it’s great that Block Island is a showcase for what a wind farm can be, and a place for people to learn about them.”
Joe Coppola, who was hauling a clam rake and a bucket of quahogs from the beach, shrugged when asked about the wind farm.
“They don’t bother me,” he said. “Some people don’t like how they look. They’re not hideous. But I’m the type of guy where if I don’t like how something looks, I don’t look at it.”
Local opinion “wasn’t all rosy” when the wind farm was proposed several years ago, said Kim Gaffett, who served on the town council for almost 20 years.
There were concerns the turbines would loom over the island, marring its best and most lucrative attribute: natural beauty. Block Islanders are passionate conservationists. Almost half of the island’s 10 square miles are protected from development. Property sales are taxed at 3%, the revenue going toward preserving more open space. More than 30 miles of trail link the spacious parklands to several public beaches.
On a sunny morning, Gaffett, a Nature Conservancy naturalist, led a group of bird watchers through an estuary in one of the island’s wildlife refuges. They spotted egrets, willets, oystercatchers and …
“An osprey!” Gaffett yelled as pairs of binoculars suddenly aimed skyward.
Wind turbines can be a danger for birds, but Gaffett isn’t concerned about the ones off Block Island. The wind farm isn’t on a migratory pathway, and the shorebirds and sea ducks common to the area fly well below the turbines’ blades.
“A lot of work goes into monitoring birds around the wind farm,” she said. “I haven’t heard of a single bird strike.”
Worse for birds are the fossil fuel emissions that cause climate change, she said. The wind farm is helping to change that. Plus, if disaster strikes, the wind turbines are not going to blanket the island’s beaches in oil. That’s what happened in 1996, when a tank barge ran aground and spilled almost 1 million gallons of oil, decimating the lobster fishery and killing thousands of birds.
“If a wind turbine falls over, all it spills is air,” Gaffett said.
Bird watchers and other nature enthusiasts make up a large share of the thousands of people who visit the island during summer days. When they’re not eating chowder and lobster rolls, they’re out fishing, hiking, biking and sunbathing.
The wind farm, located 3 miles from the island, only enhances the experience, said Mike Butler and Kathleen McGrane, a couple visiting from Rochester, New York.
“They’re so simple and beautiful,” McGrane said gazing out at the turbines from a cliff near the lighthouse.
“I’d rather look at these than an oil platform,” Butler added.
Michael Warner, of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, wanted to take the turbines home with him.
“I’d like to put them in Lake Erie,” he said. “You can feel good it’s not coal or something hurting the air.”
Block Island used to hurt the air plenty, Gaffett said. About 9 miles from the mainland and reachable only by boat and a small airport, the island relied on a dirty and obnoxiously loud diesel generator for all its power needs. For an island that prides itself on being “green,” its energy use was anything but.
“It was pretty bad,” Gaffett said. “We had to have a million gallons of diesel fuel shipped here every year.”
The generator smelled awful and frequently broke down, said Sean Mahoney, who runs a moped rental stand on the island.
“It would cut out in the middle of dinner and you’d have to do everything by candlelight,” he said.
Mahoney expressed a common misgiving about the wind farm: that it wasn’t the big money saver people had hoped.
“The bills are still pretty damn high,” he said.
Some islanders have a short memory, said Renée Meyer, editor of The Block Island Times. Before the wind farm, Block Island had some of the highest energy costs in New England.
Diesel prices soared and then plummeted just before the wind farm was completed, giving some residents the impression they would have saved money if they’d stuck with the old generator. But Meyer, a former accountant, crunched the numbers and found the average residential power customer had their bills cut by about 40%. Bottom line, Meyer wrote in her analysis: “Ka-ching.”
Another plus is that the wind farm connected Block Island to the mainland power grid. If the turbines break down, the island can draw from the wider system. Barring that, there’s always the old generators.
“Nobody wanted to buy used diesel generators,” said Bryan Wilson, the wind farm’s manager. “So we have triple redundancy.”
The air’s cleaner, and the fishing’s better, too. As anyone who fishes the Gulf of Mexico can tell you, some of the easiest fishing is near the offshore oil and gas platforms. That’s because the steel foundations act as artificial reefs.
Most offshore wind turbines in Europe are built on a single piling, but the Block Island turbines were set on foundations built by Houma-based steel fabricator Gulf Island Fabrication. The company built them much the same way it would build an oil platform, with a latticed steel jacket. No surprise they’d be coated in critters that fish love to eat.
“Fish here are guaranteed,” fishing guide Chris Willi said while steering his boat around one of the turbine’s yellow foundations. Below the water, its bright-colored legs were dark with mussels, barnacles and anemones.
“It’s an added bonus to be able to take people here,” he said as the immense blades quietly spun overhead. “It’s an experience you can’t have everywhere.”