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The nation’s first offshore wind farm is ready to go, despite critics’ blowback

The just-completed Deepwater Wind project, which sits off the coast of Rhode Island’s Block Island, is set to begin generating power this fall. (Courtesy of Deepwater Wind)

The turbines stand like sentinels off the coast of this tiny island, each rising twice as high as the Statue of Liberty. Workers attached the final 240-foot-long blades just days ago, turning the nation's first offshore wind farm into a reality.

When residents look out at the altered horizon from their gray-shingled houses, some see progress, the birth of a promising industry, a way to ditch the 1 million gallons of diesel fuel that Block Island burns each year for power.

Others see an expensive eyesore, a boondoggle that they contend will enrich private investors while burdening the state’s ratepayers and doing little to improve daily life here. One group went to federal court in an unsuccessful effort to stall the project.

The country's inaugural foray into offshore wind power is modest compared with the sprawling developments that have existed in Europe for decades. The five-turbine, 30-megawatt project, which is set to start operating this fall, will feed into New England's electrical grid via underwater cables and provide enough energy to power about 17,000 homes.

But here’s what makes it momentous: It exists.

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Building offshore turbines to capture ocean winds has long appealed to U.S. proponents who see them as an untapped source of renewable energy. Yet efforts to jump-start the industry have faltered, none more publicly than the Cape Wind project off Martha’s Vineyard, which has been beset by permitting struggles, legal challenges and opponents with last names such as Koch and Kennedy.

In part because of its deliberately small size, only the Block Island wind farm has successfully navigated the legal, regulatory and political hurdles that have tripped up others. Deepwater Wind, the Providence-based company behind the facility, views it as a steppingstone to much bigger endeavors.

“Something had to be first,” said the company’s chief executive, Jeff Grybowski. “Some project had to be successful in order for the U.S. to be able to begin taking advantage of this huge resource.”

There’s reason to believe offshore wind farms could soon see a U.S. boom.

The federal government has awarded nearly a dozen commercial offshore wind leases, including locations off the coasts of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia. This month, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) signed a law requiring utilities to buy a combined 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power in coming years. In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) wants half the state's power to come from renewable energy sources by 2030, a plan backed by the state's Public Service Commission.

Deepwater Wind already is angling to build a proposed 15-turbine wind farm off the eastern coast of Long Island, the first phase of what it hopes will be more than 200 turbines to help supply parts of New York and Massachusetts. Other companies have a growing list of offshore projects in various stages of development.

Tens of thousands of wind turbines already dot Texas, Iowa and other states, accounting for about 5 percent of the nation's energy generation. Building these structures on land is cheaper and simpler, but the ocean provides stronger and more reliable winds, and the larger turbines there can, in theory, harness vast amounts of energy.

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The wind farm three miles southeast of Block Island has not been universally embraced by the island’s roughly 1,000 year-round residents — a population that swells to 20,000 during the summer, when tourists pour off ferries and fill quaint saltwater-sprayed inns and bars.

“We certainly don’t appreciate the turbines ruining the view our family has had for nearly 100 years,” said Rosemarie Ives, whose husband has been coming to a cottage atop Mohegan Bluffs since he was a baby in the 1940s.

But Ives, the former mayor of Redmond, Wash., said the couple’s opposition goes beyond aesthetics. They and other detractors say they think officials approved the roughly $300 million project without adequately considering the long-term costs and other effects. They argue that it will do little to lower electricity bills on Block Island, where residents pay among the highest rates in the country. “It was a charade of public process,” Ives said.

Mary Jane Balser, who owns Block Island Grocery, typically the island’s biggest electricity consumer, is even more blunt. For years she tried to win grants to connect the island to the mainland electricity grid in an effort to escape the unreliability of diesel generators.

“Financially,” she said this month, the wind farm “just makes no sense.”

Under a 20-year agreement with regional utility National Grid, Deepwater Wind will receive about 24 cents per kilowatt hour for the power generated by the turbines, with guaranteed increases over time. The average American pays about 12.3 cents. That means Rhode Islanders will pay more for power to subsidize a project benefiting Deepwater's private investors, Balser said.

“It’s not benefiting Block Island. It’s not benefiting Rhode Island,” she said. “The notoriety of being the first in the nation? Can I take that home and eat it?”

Grybowski, the Deepwater Wind CEO, is familiar with the criticisms but insists that the wind farm has broad support. Block Island’s town council and residents association backed it, he said, as did environmental groups, three Rhode Island governors, the state’s congressional delegation and the Obama administration.

“It’s not unanimous, but I don’t know that there’s an energy project anywhere in the world that is unanimously praised,” he said. “I think the folks who think the process was insufficient are really upset that they didn’t win.”

Cristina Archer, a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean and Environment at the University of Delaware, likens offshore wind farms in the United States to personal computers and other technologies that are expensive in the beginning but grow cheaper and more accepted over time. She suspects that the same will happen as the industry grows domestically. "It paves the way," Archer said of Block Island.

Yet she acknowledged that islanders themselves might not see many direct benefits from the project. “The benefit is long term for society in general, not necessarily for the place where the turbines are,” she said.

For Norris Pike, a home builder and the island’s second warden, his vote in favor of the project came down in part to a commitment to combat climate change.

“It’s the right thing to do. Everybody has to do their part. I believe this is our part,” said Pike, whose family settled here in the 17th century. He estimates that about 70 percent of residents support the project and that the 30 percent who were against it “just tended to be pretty vocal.”

He expects to see community gains, such as ecotourism and the mainland power connection, that will include fiber-optic cable that eventually might help improve the island’s notoriously sluggish Internet speeds.

“We’ve been running on diesel generators for 80 years,” Pike said. “It’s time to turn them off.”

Clifford McGinnes, the octogenarian co-owner of Block Island Power, agrees.

“We won’t have these ups and downs that we’ve had with the [diesel] engines,” he said, noting that a recent fire disabled several engines and led to rolling blackouts. “I can’t wait to shut them down. There’s always a problem.”

Some Block Islanders are delighted that the smallest town in the smallest state is ground zero for a new renewable energy industry.

“Isn’t it awesome?” asked Judy Gray, a retired meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as she stood on her deck overlooking the wind farm. “I’m what they call a YIMBY — Yes in my back yard.”

Gray’s family began coming to the island in the 1930s, and she and her husband settled here full-time when she retired. “People are afraid of what they don’t know,” she said. “I think people will eventually get used to it. I think it’s going to make us a model.”

In recent days, Gray has spent hours on her deck with her camera, giddily documenting how the turbines were taking shape. This fall, when their blades at last begin generating electricity, she plans to throw a “wind farm party” to celebrate with friends and neighbors.