Expert: Wind farms are the way of the future

Tue, 04/09/2013 - 2:00pm

The five-turbine wind farm planned three miles off the coast of Block Island could serve as a catalyst for offshore wind energy in New England, says the former president of the Conservation Law Foundation.

Philip Warburg called the farm proposed by Deepwater Wind a potentially “great example” for offshore wind energy development. His remarks came in an interview with the Block Island Times after he had made a public presentation about the history of wind energy in the United States.

With its relatively modest size, Warburg said the project may largely escape the wrath of those concerned about viewsheds. Plus, the farm would sit close to densely populated areas with high electricity demands.

Warburg, who lives in Massachusetts, earlier told an audience of about 40 people that New England should support offshore wind projects such as the planned Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound. He had made his presentation at The Metcalf Institute at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography on March 14. The lecture was part of the Peter B. Lord Series on the Environment, named after the late Providence Journal environmental reporter.

“In New England we talk about lighting the way for the environment,” he said. “If we can’t move forward in New England, where can we move forward?”

In the Midwest, it turns out. Warburg spent much of his presentation at the University of Rhode Island Narragansett Bay campus chronicling his journey across America’s wind farms and associated industries. His travels took him to America’s heartland, where wind farms are springing up to capture some of the nation’s strongest winds. The 67-turbine Meridian Way Wind Farm in Kansas alone produces enough electricity to power about 55,000 homes.

Wind farms of this kind, Warburg said, create jobs in construction, installation and maintenance of the turbines. Operators of wind farms placed on private land pay tens of thousands annually to ranchers in lease payments. That, Warburg said, serves as a crucial hedge for ranchers and farmers susceptible to the ups and downs of crop and meat prices.

The story in Rhode Island will be different. The Deepwater Wind project would sit in state waters, leaving the state to reap the benefits of any lease payments for the turbines. The town and Block Island Power Co. will be the most likely beneficiaries of lease payments for transmission lines and substations.

And the turbines that arrive in Ocean State waters will not hail from the Midwestern American factories Warburg chronicles in his book “Harvest the Wind: America’s Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence and Climate Stability.” Instead, the six-megawatt turbines will come from German-based Siemens. The reason? Deepwater officials say there are no domestic manufacturers of offshore wind turbines.

For Warburg his advocacy for wind power stems from more than a desire to create jobs, wrestle America away from foreign oil or lower electric costs. Warburg said global warming threatens the environment and burning fossil fuels is only fanning an impending crisis.

He expressed disappointment that global climate change was sidelined as an issue during the presidential election. And he bemoaned that President Obama appeared to let renewable energy initiatives stumble until recently.

“Wind power is not a panacea but it is a technology that is here today that has great potential,” he said. “What we need is the political will.”

Political will, Warburg said, is needed to continue federal tax credits for wind farm developers. Warburg argued the tax credits put wind on an almost equal playing field to the billions that the fossil fuel industry receives annually in federal subsidies and tax breaks. (The nuclear industry also benefits from a unique law that drastically caps its liability during a meltdown.)

Deepwater Wind is counting on one federal program, the Investment Tax Credit, to ensure the financial viability of its Block Island project. The credit, equal to 30 percent of installation costs, could mean millions of dollars to the Providence-based company. Deepwater’s second proposed project consisting of 150 to 200 turbines situated 15 miles offshore could realize millions of dollars more in credits.

The credits, however, live an unstable existence, according to Warburg. Congress has renewed them in spurts for a few months to a year and let them lapse. They are now available. Previous lapses, Warburg said, sent the wind energy industry into a slump and left the dream of a wind-powered nation further from grasp. Nonetheless, he remains an optimist.

“I’m a person who believes wind power has enormous potential,” he said. “I am very bullish about wind.”