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Block Island wind farm claims just a lot of hot air

Over the past year I admit I lost track of exactly where the Block Island wind farm project stood. That is, until last week when my family and I took a day trip to Block Island and visited the Southeast Lighthouse. As I stood on the bluffs and looked a few miles offshore, I could hardly believe my eyes. Big ugly barges, cranes and support boats littered the once-spectacular view. I quickly made some calls and sure enough, what I was looking at was the start of the construction for the Block Island wind farm, the first offshore wind farm in the United States.

Now at the risk of sounding like an anti-environmentalist, I want to quickly point out here that the offshore wind farm project has nothing to do with “green energy.” Oh, they will tell you it does. In fact, the motto of the company responsible for the project, Deepwater Wind, is “Clean energy is just over the horizon.”

I am in the power-engineering business, and here are some facts about this “green project” you might find interesting. The project involves constructing five wind turbines manufactured by Alstom (a French company) a few miles southeast of Block Island. The total cost is estimated right now to be $360 million and will produce a total of 30 megawatts of energy – six megawatts per turbine at max capacity (zero megawatts when the wind is below 5 knots). To give you an idea of exactly how much or how little power that is, a simple-cycle natural-gas clean-burning zero-discharge power plant produces about 60 megawatts and costs about a third of what this project costs.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for wind power. I have seen and been on sites where hundreds of wind turbines are in operation. But these wind turbines are easily maintained and are in remote locations so they are not an eyesore to anyone – because they are in the middle of the desert!

Currently we have a glut of power production in the country and in New England. We have dozens of clean, natural-gas-burning plants capable of producing hundreds of megawatts per site sitting idle or running at half-capacity because production of power exceeds the demand.

So you might ask yourself how the Block Island wind farm project got approved. It was simple: Back-room politics. And the residents of Block Island approved it to reduce their electric bills, by as much as 40 percent, some reports estimate. Currently the island buys its power from the mainland at an exorbitant price, so the project was an easy sell to the Block Island residents. However, this issue is larger than local politics and electric-bill reductions. This project will affect all of us. These wind turbines stand hundreds of feet in the air and will be visible from Watch Hill to Stonington to Montauk to southern Massachusetts.

I started fishing Block Island from shore over 20 years ago, and the south side of Block Island is an amazing place. Standing on the bluffs looking southeast, there is literally nothing between you and Europe. On a new-moon night, you can’t see your hand in front of your face it’s so dark. The Milky Way seems like it’s within an arm’s reach, and there is a peace about the place that is magical.

All that is gone now. It’s a sad day for one of the great spots in New England. The night sky will be lit up with flashing red-and-green lights to warn boats and planes alike of the turbines’ formidable presence. The low hum of turning 60-foot wind-turbine blades will be audible on quiet nights when the surf is low. The sound of turbine-maintenance boats and barges will be ever-present, and the spectacular views from the bluffs of Block Island will be a thing of the past.

Something tells me that they will probably not stop at constructing five wind turbines. In my opinion, this is just the beginning.

Or, as some of us might say, it’s the beginning of the end.