Blazing the Trail for Offshore Wind in Rhode Island

Jerry Elmer

In just a few days, the first offshore wind farm in the country will go live. The five-turbine Block Island Wind Project, developed by Deepwater Wind off the coast of Rhode Island, was more than 10 years in the making. The lessons learned and the trails blazed from this small project are setting the stage for bigger and bolder offshore wind projects in the U.S. – and ushering in the clean, home-grown energy we need to curb climate change before it’s too late.

CLF is proud to have been a central part of this success story. In our new blog series, we’re looking back on key project milestones of the past decade and looking ahead to what the future for wind looks like in New England and beyond.

A Vision for Clean Energy 

Changing New England’s energy mix from one that relies on climate-damaging fossil fuels to one built on clean, renewable sources is imperative, but it’s also a daunting task. While consumer demand for clean energy is critical to driving change, top-down support from state legislators across the region is also needed.

In 2004, just over a dozen states had laws on the books that required a set percentage of energy sold in the state come from renewable energy sources. That year, Rhode Island passed its first such law, requiring National Grid (the state’s dominant electricity utility) to buy increasing amounts of renewable energy every year.

CLF advocates worked for years in the Rhode Island General Assembly to get the bill passed. While we considered the final law a good step forward, it lacked an important requirement for the power company to purchase renewable energy through long-term contracts. Long-term contracts are crucial for developers of renewable projects to secure funding in the form of loans from banks (or other lenders); the developers use these contracts as collateral for their loans.

After the 2004 bill became law, the state’s Public Utilities Commission began a year-long process to put the mandate into effect. During that process, CLF successfully persuaded the PUC to include a requirement that National Grid procure a significant part of its renewable energy through long-term contracts – a win that would make the market for new renewable energy projects more friendly for investors. This positive outcome would be short-lived.

The Fight to Enforce the Law

Despite the PUC’s clear requirement, in 2006 and 2007, National Grid failed to procure any of its annual quota of renewable energy through long-term contracts – and the PUC let the utility giant get away with it. In both years, CLF litigated at the PUC in an effort to have the agency enforce its own rule, but we ultimately lost both cases.

In 2007, the PUC formed a Working Group in an effort to reach a compromise between those pushing for requiring long-term contracts (environmental groups and renewable energy developers) and those pushing against them (the PUC itself and National Grid). The Working Group was made up of the utility company, government agencies (including the Attorney General’s office), low-income advocates, multiple renewable energy developers, and others. CLF also took a seat at the table – the only environmental group to do so.

A Cooperative Solution

After 18 months and hours of discussion among Working Group members, in March 2008, a breakthrough occurred when CLF and National Grid fashioned a two-part compromise. Under the deal, the utility company would continue to buy renewable energy as mandated by the existing 2004 bill, but without the critical long-term contracts the PUC had required. At the same time, stakeholders would draft a new bill to present to the General Assembly, under which National Grid would be obligated to enter into long-term contracts for renewables. CLF and National Grid worked together to draft the new bill, which was signed into law in 2009.

Three Steps to More Clean Energy in Rhode Island 

The 2009 law set the stage for the current Block Island wind project. Under the law, National Grid was required to purchase long-term contracts for clean energy in three categories:

  1. 90 megawatts over four years from any clean energy source in New England.
  2. A 10-megawatt offshore “demonstration project” off of Block Island, in order to show that offshore wind was viable as a utility-scale source.
  3. A 150 MW (utility-scale) follow-on offshore project if the 10-megawatt demonstration project was successful.

This version of law has been a great success. National Grid procured its first 90 megawatts (more or less) on time and the Block Island Wind Project is now on the verge of fulfilling the law’s second requirement. Plans are already underway with Deepwater Wind to develop a 150-megawatt utility-scale wind farm to meet the third and final mandate.

The End Result

The Block Island Wind farm, which will power some 17,000 homes in Rhode Island, demonstrates for the first time the viability of offshore wind in the United States. Its significance – within the state, regionally, and nationally – cannot be understated.

One of the lessons that can be learned from its success is the importance of perseverance by policymakers, developers, and environmental advocates like CLF. Over time, CLF was instrumental in ensuring that Rhode Island’s renewable energy laws were created, enforced, and implemented, all of which created a viable path for an energy developer to commit to a project. It may have been a slow process, but today, the result is an historic one: the first fully operational offshore wind project in the country.

Events on land are only one part of the Block Island Wind Project Story. In our next blog, we’ll recount how ocean planning and Rhode Island’s Special Area Management Plan played a critical role in identifying where to build the project.

Focus Areas

Climate ChangeOceans

Places

Rhode Island

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