National Grid ready for the challenge

Detail installation of transmission cable system
Fri, 06/19/2015 - 8:30am
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Twenty miles of cable, maybe six inches in diameter, stuffed with thick brass conduits, steel cables, hard rubber and fiber optics. A trench as deep as six feet will be dug on the ocean floor so the cable can link the five turbine wind farm to Block Island, and then Block Island to the mainland. A directional drill will push tons of seawater and sand out of the way to bring the cable under the Town Beach, beneath the dunes, over to Beach Avenue, where a section of road will be cut open to lay even more cable, placed within PVC pipe, cemented underground and connected to the new substation located at the Block Island Power Company (BIPCo) on Ocean Avenue.

It isn't going to be easy. It isn't for the faint of heart. But this is what National Grid is tasked with accomplishing by the end of 2016 when the new Block Island Wind Farm is expected to go online.

The process was detailed by three representatives from the utility, who stopped by The Block Island Times on Monday, June 15, to provide information about the installation of the Deepwater Wind Block Island Wind Farm transmission cable system. The visitors were Consulting Engineer David Campilii, Project Manager Shannon Baxevanis and Media Relations representative David Graves. 

National Grid has labeled the Block Island Transmission System (BITS) part of the wind farm project “sea2shore: The Renewable Link.”

National Grid is responsible for the $107 million transmission cable part of the project that includes the 20-mile cable, a new substation on Block Island, including its connection to the marine cable, and upgrades to existing substations in Narragansett. National Grid will build a portion of the cable that will link BIPCo to the submarine cable. This is the first offshore wind farm in the United States.

Campilii said that the reason that offshore wind farms hadn’t “taken off” in this country is that electricity rates in the United States are “lower, maybe, than the rest of the world’s (rates).” As a result, the offshore wind business “had an easier way to compete in Europe and Asia, where rates are higher. It’s starting to come to the U.S. now,” Campilii said. “Deepwater Wind is not the first offshore wind farm in the world. There are lots of other installations.”

Graves said that there are hundreds of offshore wind generation facilities in the world, “both off the coast of the U.K. (United Kingdom), as well as in the Scandinavian countries.”  

The National Grid representatives all agreed that the five-turbine, 30-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm is a “pilot project" that may pave the way for more installations.

“This has always been called a pilot project,” said Graves. “Five wind turbines will not change the world. It amounts to about one percent of our annual demand. One percent of our total portfolio. It is what it is designed to be, and that is a pilot project. You’ve got to start somewhere.”

Campilii brought with him small cross section sample pieces of the yellow-coated submarine cable, the mainland land cable and the fiber optic cable. He said that power will be able to flow in both directions in the submarine cable from the mainland to the island and that the cable will have a 30 to 40 year lifespan.

The submarine cable will be submerged two meters beneath the seabed and run through 20 miles of state and federal waters. A jet plow that will be dragged along the seafloor by a barge to lay the submarine cable will carefully navigate its way around transatlantic cable lines existing on the seabed. LS Cables, based in South Korea, will be fabricating all of the submarine cables for the Block Island Wind Farm project.

Campilii pointed out that the reason the cable is buried is to protect it from being damaged. Graves said that on June 13, of 2000, a Disney cruise ship called "The Big Red Boat" departed Newport Harbor with its anchors down and severed two cable lines that supply electricity to Newport and Jamestown, causing 6,000 residents to be without power for 17 hours. 

The mainland cable for the project will run approximately four miles from the sea to the Wakefield substation in South Kingstown where it will be connected to the National Grid distribution system. The fiber optic cable accompanying the project will be included in the submarine cable, and run alongside of the land cable, covered with PVC piping and encased within cement.

On Block Island, the land cable will be routed approximately one mile underground from the Town Beach parking lot to the BIPCo property, and newly constructed substation, via Beach Avenue. 

“The first construction you’re going to see at the beaches, is going to happen in November, December of this year,” said Campilii. “That’s when they’ll be using the directional drills to get the conduits in place. The submarine cable installation is going to start next April (2016), from the Narragansett side toward Block Island. Hopefully, toward the end of April, you’ll see the ship just offshore here making landfall from the mainland.”

Campilii said that the ship will lay cable out to the wind farm immediately after making landfall at the Town Beach at the end of April.

“With the power coming in from the wind farm to the island, there will be two feeds,” said Graves. “One will be going to the mainland. Another will be going to BIPCo. There will be meters on those feeds. So the island will be receiving power generated by the wind farm (directly). However, they will not be buying their power from Deepwater Wind. They’re going to be out on the market, buying, as we do, from wholesale suppliers and that metered account would then be part of what they would pay. But, it is actually wind generated power that will be coming to the island through BIPCo.”

Graves noted that there are days when “the wind farm is generating more than the island needs, whether three to four megawatts, and the excess will flow to the mainland. We’re buying one hundred percent of the energy that’s being generated by the wind farm.”

“Here’s where it goes very murky in the whole world of wholesale power supply and purchasing of power,” said Graves, “while a portion of it will be coming from the island, we’re actually owning one hundred percent. BIPCo’s going out and buying their percentage on the market someplace else. BIPCo will become a distributor, and they will only operate their diesel generator as backup.”

Graves said, “when the wind farm is not generating enough to meet the load on the island, then all of the island’s demand would come from the mainland through our cable to BIPCo. In that case, BIPCo is not buying electricity from National Grid,” he said. “That cable is going to be owned by New England Power Company (NEPC), which is our transmission company. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of National Grid.”

“New England Power Company will be building the line and paying for it through rates,” said Graves. “And BIPCo will be paying a transmission charge to New England Power Company for any amount of electricity that is transmitted through that cable to the island. So, BIPCo is not contracting with National Grid, per se, but rather with New England Power Company, our transmission company.”

According to Graves, energy rates will be determined by the contract that BIPCo agrees to in the market place. In the case where the Block Island Wind Farm is not generating power, Campilii said that, “nothing would happen to the rates, because BIPCo is buying through the market, so the rates won’t fluctuate.”

Rates in the state of Rhode Island are approved of, and set twice a year by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). On its website, National Grid says that their rates are approved by the PUC, and that the utility is no longer in the power supply business. They are “primarily a distribution company that delivers electricity produced by others.” 

“BIPCo would sign a power purchase agreement with somebody through the ISO (Independent System Operators) process,” said Campilii, “and the rates there are going to be charged independent of whether the wind is blowing or not.”

“You’ll be getting power when you need it,” said Graves. “When the Block Island Wind Farm is not generating enough you will still be getting enough to meet the island’s needs. The rates are all designed so there are not these huge fluctuations. BIPCo will have their contract. They will know what the rate is, and they will be charging you (the consumer) that rate.”

Dissenters of the Block Island Wind farm project have argued that electric rates are going to skyrocket and ratepayers will bear the burden.

“The $107 million is being spread across the entire Rhode Island rate base,” said Graves. “And as far as the electric supply is concerned, since we are buying one hundred percent of the power generated by the wind farm at 24.4 cents per kilowatt hour, estimated in the first year of delivery, which is now 2017, we’ll be paying at that point, 24.4 cents per kilowatt hour. And that’s per the rate base of 490,000 electric customers in Rhode Island, based on rates that were in place in October (2014).”

Graves said, “That would mean an increase of about $1.65 per month for a typical mainland residential customer, or somebody using 500 kilowatt hours of electricity each month.” 

However, Graves also noted that Block Island ratepayers are not the utility’s customers. Block Island ratepayers are BIPCo customers, subject to “what BIPCo can work out in the marketplace,” said Graves.

While Deepwater Wind has been targeting a fall 2016 unveiling, National Grid is asserting that the wind farm project will be completed no later than the beginning of 2017.

“We may be a little more conservative than they are,” said Graves about Deepwater Wind. “There are a lot of surprises when you start digging underground and under the sea. There could be variables. There could be storms. There could be any number of things that slow the process down.”

“They (Deepwater Wind) expect to bring units online in 2016,” said Campilii, “but the whole wind farm should be done at the end of 2016.”

National Grid will be hosting an open house on Tuesday, June 23 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Block Island Community Center.