Can R.I. ride wind-energy wave?

PROJECTS AKIN to the Block Island Wind Farm , developed by Deepwater Wind, will require significant port acreage. / BLOOMBERG FILE PHOTO/ERIC THAYER
OFFSHORE WIND PROJECTS, like the Block Island Wind Farm developed by Deepwater Wind, will require significant port acreage. / BLOOMBERG FILE PHOTO/ERIC THAYER

Rhode Island has invested heavily in its port infrastructure in recent years, to retrofit what had been created with the last century’s industries in mind.

A bond approved in 2016 was the latest effort. It provided $70 million to the two ports in Rhode Island, including a $20 million share for the Port of Providence to enlarge its land-based footprint by up to 25 acres and $50 million for Quonset modernization in North Kingstown.

For all that, the ports are small for one of the industries identified as critical to our state’s economic future: offshore wind power.

The sheer size of the components of the turbines and the need to assemble them close to the shore have compelled wind-power companies to search for more land resources. In countries that have a more-mature industry, it’s not uncommon to find ports of 100 acres or more, said Jeffrey Grybowski, Deepwater Wind CEO.

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In the United States, that isn’t available, so as the industry escalates its activity, companies are scouting out the best locations.

Eight states on the Eastern Seaboard between Massachusetts and Virginia are interested in building offshore wind projects, he explained. In all, these states have pledged to build 8,000 megawatts of power. That compares to 30 megawatts created by the Deepwater Wind Block Island pilot project.

In turbine-equivalents, the industry will need to build 800 turbines, compared to the five now turning off the Rhode Island coast. And all will move forward on roughly the same schedule.

“We will need many ports up and down the East Coast to build out this 8,000 megawatts,” he said.

Where does that leave the Ocean State, the first-in state for the industry? Will our small ports leave us behind?

The good news is that no one in the region really has bigger ports. So, it isn’t a question of either Rhode Island or somewhere else, Grybowski says.

“For all of our projects we will use multiple ports,” Grybowski said.

Competitively, Rhode Island is well-positioned, he added.

“At the end of the day, all of these big ports on the East Coast are going to be used,” Grybowski said. “Rhode Island will get more than its fair share.”

Deepwater Wind locally is looking specifically at ProvPort, New Bedford and it’s also had conversations with Quonset.

From ProvPort’s perspective, there will be plenty of work up and down the New England coast, according to Bill Fischer, a spokesman for the city-owned site, which is operated by an independent company.

Rhode Island officials think the state is still well-positioned as the industry starts to take off.

Carol Grant, director of the R.I. Office of Energy Resources, said the state’s ports have the experience that none of the others has at this point.

“There are only two ports in the U.S. that have hosted an offshore wind project, ProvPort and Quonset,” she said. “We think we understand what we can do to support this industry and its supply chain.”