Block Island finds itself at the center of initiatives in both wave and wind energy that are meeting with mixed reactions from the state.
Governor Donald Carcieri is to announce the signing of an agreement between the state Office of Energy Resources, the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation and wave energy company Oceanlinx Limited to create two wave energy plants in Rhode Island coastal waters, including a pilot plant off Block Island that could reduce island electric rates.
The agreement hinges on state legislators approving a key bill next session to establish a state power authority. A similar bill died in the General Assembly last session.
Confident that the bill will pass early next year, Gov. Carcieri is expected to give the deal his public blessing at a press conference at the University of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Campus on Tuesday, December 4, that will focus on state energy policy and the development of both wind and wave technology.
Meanwhile a proposal from a New York wind energy company that filed for permits and made a public announcement before talking to the state has met with a more chilly reception. But company representatives this week said they are committed to the project and are pushing for approval to start gathering the data needed to build offshore wind farms in state waters. As part of the plan, the company wants to install a meteorological mast south of Block Island to measure wind speed and direction. For more see the story that begins on page 4.
Wave energy deal signed last month
Oceanlinx announced October 26 that it had signed an agreement with Rhode Island to build two plants in Rhode Island. The announcement, available on its website at www.oceanlinx.com, was made as the company began preparations to make an initial public offering on the London Stock Exchange.
The deal has a number of ambitious components. Under it, the company will base its U.S. headquarters and East Coast manufacturing center in Rhode Island.
It will also be a partner in a newly established Renewable Energy Center of Excellence in cooperation with the state and URI. The state Office of Energy Resources has already given the university $125,000 to start the center, said Andrew Dzykewicz, commissioner of the state Office of Energy Resources.
At next Tuesday’s event, the university is also expected to announce the creation of an Energy Advisory Board and a public lecture series to educate state residents about renewable energy and energy conservation.
Dzykewicz said he thinks the General Assembly will pass the legislation needed to create a power authority early next session. He said he and the governor have spent a lot of time talking to legislators about the importance of the bill to facilitate renewable energy projects.
The newly created power authority would raise $45 million in bond money for Oceanlinx. That’s in addition to $750,000 in financing the company received from New England states, including Rhode Island, for preliminary studies in November 2003.
The company says it is ready to start work in Rhode Island. “We are ready and raring to go,” said Andrew Hold, a communications specialist from London firm Finsbury Group, which represents Oceanlinx. “We just need the relevant approvals.”
R.I. at the forefront
Oceanlinx’s first project would be a pilot plant in waters just off Block Island, expected to cost between $3 million and $4 million. The project is expected to get streamlined federal permitting as long as the 1.5 megawatts of electricity generated is given away. The energy would go to Block Island, says Dzykewicz, and the state could look to get a contribution to its renewable energy fund in return.
The second project would be a much larger commercial plant off the southern coast of Rhode Island that would generate 15 to 20 megawatts. The state consumes about 1,000 megawatts on average, Dzykewicz says.
The wave farms, and the public/private partnership, would be the first of their kind in the United States, says Dzykewicz.
Wave turbines can also be used to prevent beach erosion, he says, or as breakwaters. The plants sit low on the water, creating minimal visual impact. The technology can also be used to create desalinization plants, which could be the answer to water shortages in South County.
State scientists have advised that wave generation will “dovetail perfectly” with wind farms, says Dzykewicz, since wave action tends to lag behind high winds by a couple of days.
Steve Kass, communications director for the office of the governor, said that wave and wind technology have the potential to greatly reduce the state’s dependence on fossil fuels. If that happens, the Ocean State would be the first in the country to draw significant power from ocean-based projects. “Power is the big focus” for the governor’s office right now, said Kass. “We want to lead the country.”
There are currently no offshore wind or wave generation plants in the United States, according to Kass and Dzykewicz. Wind projects have been stalled by permitting and opposition from residents in Cape Cod and Long Island. But offshore wind plants, tidal generation plants and wave plants can be found in Europe and Australia.
Rhode Island in generating so much attention from renewable energy companies because of its natural resources, said Dzykewicz, and because “We happen to have a renewable energy-friendly policy. It’s always easier to get a project done when the state actually wants it.”
Dzykewicz says he expects the pilot wave plant off Block Island to be in place within a year. “It’s not going to make your electric bills zero,” he said. “But there will absolutely be a reduction.”
Block Island Power Company’s (BIPCo) Cliff McGinnes Sr. said this week that nobody has approached the utility about the plan, but “we’re all for it. We’d be more than happy to cooperate with them.”
The island’s peak summer electric consumption is about 4 megawatts, he said, but off-season use is much lower. In the past week, for instance, BIPCo generated about 1.3 megawatts, less than the 1.5 megawatts the pilot wave plant could produce at maximum output.
The energy that might come from a wave plant would essentially replace the diesel the power company now ships over, said McGinnes. Consumers would still get a bill to cover the company’s infrastructure and staff, but the fuel cost adjustment that now makes up a large percentage of each bill would be slashed. The reduction would depend on overall consumption and the plant’s output, but McGinnes guessed that at times, bills could be cut in half. “It’s promising,” McGinnes said. “But a lot of things need to be worked out, and the devil is in the details.”
First Warden Kim Gaffett said she had not yet heard of the plan. “I wonder how [the power] will make landfall,” she said. “But if it’s going to benefit us, I’m all for it.”
The local Energy Task Group is scheduled to meet this Monday at 2 p.m. at the Fire Barn, she added. The group is expected to give a recommendation soon about the future of BIPCo. Among the options the group has considered has been a municipal buyout of the tiny utility, which has rates three times higher than the rest of the state and recently announced that it is applying to raise rates by another 9 percent.
Founded in 1997, Oceanlinx designs, manufactures and installs industry-leading wave turbines. It has one test plant in place at Port Kembla in New South Wales, Australia, which company spokesman Holt said has been functioning since 2005 and “will shortly be connected to the grid.” When that happens, “it will be the world’s first commercial onshore power plant.”
An offshore wave plant using a competing technology, the snake-like Pelamis Wave Energy Converter, is in operation in Portugal, he said. Pelamis’s web site says it is has also secured funding for a second plant off the U.K. But another Oceanlinx project in Victoria, Australia, will probably be the next commercial plant to come on line, Holt said, and when it does it will be the largest offshore wave plant in the world.
The technology planned for the Rhode Island project is different from that at the Australian test plant, Holt said, because instead of being anchored to the ocean floor in inshore waters, it will be tethered to the bottom by cables and sit further offshore. The wave farm will also sit slightly lower in the water, protruding about 28 feet above the ocean surface.
Using what it calls oscillating water technology, the wave chambers use wave action to compress air and drive a turbine. A hallmark of the technology is that computers measure the air pressure and alter the angle of blades in the turbine so that although the wave action ebbs and flows at different speeds, the turbine spins at a constant speed in a single direction. The turbine is the only major moving part, and sits in a sealed box slightly above the water line.
The Rhode Island project is one of six the company is developing around the world, including two in Australia, one in southern England, one in Namibia and one in Hawaii, according to an October 26 press release that announced the company was preparing for its initial public offering on the London Stock Exchange.
Holt said this week that the stock has yet to float on the LSE, but “We hope to list before the end of the year.”
Oceanlinx representatives came to Block Island May 30 to meet with a local energy task group. The local group later discussed the project and forwarded some concerns to the state.
Dzykewicz said this week that he is looking forward to further talks between the state, the company and local officials as the project moves forward.
How the deal will work
Rhode Island will secure the permits and float the bonds. “Any time you want the state to own something, everybody starts to shake,” says Kass of the governor’s office. But in this case, the state will sell off the pieces of the deal. That way, he said, the state remains in control and will get the best deal from private frims. It’s the same model the state wants to use for wind farms.
For instance, Kass says state taxpayers shouldn’t worry about the $45 million bond proposed to pay for the wave plants. “It won’t be on taxpayers’ backs at all,” he said. That’s because part of the deal would be a power purchasing agreement with Rhode Island’s main utility company that would guarantee a solid return, making the bond an attractive deal to sell off to private investors. “If National Grid signs a contract for 20 years, any number of investors will buy the bonds,” he said. “They would be crazy not to.”
The purchasing agreement would mean that Rhode Island would sell the electricity from the plant to the grid, then be first in line to buy however much it needs back at a set rate. Any excess is profit. The energy would also earn the state renewable energy credits.
If the General Assembly passes the necessary legislation, Block Island will be the first community in the state to benefit from power at a stable rate that’s no longer linked to oil prices. “We want want to reduce your power costs,” said Kass. “You [Block Island residents] are going to be the big winners in this.”
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