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Racing the Wind

News & Features | April 16, 2010

Suzi Grossman

As the United States’ oil supply dwindles and our carbon footprint grows, many look to the wind as the answer to our energy problems. Rhode Island and Massachusetts can now count themselves among the growing number of wind energy proponents as they compete to be the first state with a large-scale offshore wind farm.

Tufts Professor and Associate Dean of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Lewis Edgers sees wind energy as a smart solution to our energy problems and understands why states are jumping at the opportunity to harness the wind’s power.

“My view is that we’re living in a time where energy is increasing in high demand, and we’re feeling the effects of using fossil fuels, coal and oil, to generate energy,” he said. “We have to develop more diverse sources in energy, in particular sources that don’t rely on fossil fuels. We need renewable sources, so [windfarms] can be  very viable sources of energy in places of the world with wind.”

Massachusetts has secured state permits for the proposed farm, but has encountered difficulties in garnering popular support and is currently awaiting final permits. The developer, Cape Wind, has clashed with coastal Indian tribes, homeowners, and businesses in its quest to create the first offshore farm in the US, and the ensuing delays have given Rhode Island the chance to compete.

Rhode Island has approached the project from a different angle, beginning its journey with offshore wind energy through a three-year scientific study set to conclude this August. The study–which cost over $8 million–researched the ecosystems, fish distribution, bird migration patterns, fisherman priorities, and areas of importance for Indian tribes along the state’s 30-mile coastline.

Although the research has not yet finished, Rhode Island has proposed two possible sites–an eight-turbine farm off Block Island for $200 million and a much larger project in the eastern Rhode Island Sound for $1.5 billion. The state has also chosen Deepwater Wind as its developer.

Both developers have faced similar challenges in designing the offshore wind farms. According to Edgers, constructing and choosing locations for the wind turbines is a complicated science.

“The technical challenges are in first of all assessing the suitability—you need to determine if a place is windy enough and then to decide how to place a group of wind turbines on a foundation,” said Edgers, “You have to explore the sea floor, figure out the wind and sea and currents to determine how much energy can be produced, and how much pressure is put on the structures.”

Clearly, this complicated process can create real problems in the actual construction and completion of a wind farm. Rhode Island appeared to be secure in its wind energy plans, but a fallout with the utility company set to buy the energy the farm will generate has been a major setback. With both states currently lacking these “power purchases,” offshore wind energy is still just a dream.

Edgers does not see the race as a contest, but as a large-scale push for renewable energy.

“I don’t see it as a competition. Each of these projects is being brought forward by developers, and there are some technical challenges in each,” he said. “The thing that makes this take so long is the need for regulatory approval.”

This approval could come straight from the White House, as stalled progress in both states has prompted national action. The interior secretary for the Obama administration, Ken Salazar, has been tasked with the decision to approve or deny the Massachusetts’ Cape Wind project. Salazar will make his decision about the future of the project by the end of the month. He can either respect the native tribes of the area with concerns that the farm will damage a natural ocean habitat, or he can recognize that solar wind energy is an environmentally crucial part of Massachusetts’ future.

While officials believe that the wind farms will prove worthwhile in providing clean energy and jobs, they also understand that the farms have become an issue of state pride—a competitive race to be the first state with an offshore farm. Consequently, some environmentalists have voiced concerns that this competition could overshadow the protection of wildlife.

Edgers said that the site assessments take these environmental factors into account. “There are environmental issues associated with wind turbines, there are noise issues, shadow issues, and they must deal with birds,” he said. “What that means is that someone has to conduct an assessment of what those environmental effects may be.”

Although Tufts’ energy does not come from the Massachusetts’ grid–but rather a smaller, greener energy producer– individuals at Tufts’ Office of Sustainability would be happy to see the state producing more energy from renewable sources.

The office used to run a joint initiative with the Environmental Consciousness Outreach (ECO) organization called Get Clean! Power It Green!—an endeavor that allowed students to offset their carbon emissions by purchasing clean energy credits, which support wind energy in part. The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative had decided to discontinue the program, however.

Since then, students have pushed to add a student fee for wind energy, but to no avail, according to Project Coordinator for the Office of Sustainability, Tina Woolston.

“There was a large scale effort by students several years ago to get a fee attached to [student bills] for wind power,” she said. “So, it passed the student referendum, but then the administration didn’t want to implement it, so the students did a big push to have people buy recs voluntarily. However, without a champion, very few people know about it or do it.”

Many other members of the Tufts community would be happy to see the state win the race for wind energy. Among these groups is the Tufts Energy Security Initiative, which supports research into energy security aimed to understand the political, social, and environmental consequences of our energy choices.

Edgers has high hopes for the future of wind energy in the Northeast and hopes that Massachusetts and Rhode Island will not lose sight of the true importance of wind energy. “In Europe, wind energy makes a significant contribution to their energy supply, and we could be doing the same thing in New England,” he said. “I don’t think of it as a state resource; to me it’s a renewable resource.”