The first offshore wind farm in the US is tiny. It has only five turbines, compared to the 4,800 turbines in the country’s largest land wind farm in California.

But what the farm lacks in numbers, it makes up for in potential — opening a door to a whole new form of energy production that could revolutionize the country’s energy grid.

“It’s an extremely large resource that could power the whole country,” Jeffrey Firestone, director of the Center for Carbon-Free Power Integration at the University of Delaware, told Global Citizen.

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Sitting off the coast of Rhode Island on Block Island, these five turbines have furiously spun in the gusts of the Atlantic since last December and have already transformed a small island’s energy supply.

Block Island had used a diesel power plant for electricity for decades because it was separated from the region’s energy grid. Diesel is one of the dirtiest forms of energy production, releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than coal.

The wind farm changes all of that. It recently retired the diesel plant by providing enough energy for the 2,000 residents, and it links the island to the region’s energy grid, giving the town more energy stability.

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More importantly, it shows the viability of offshore wind power to the nation. Compared to the rest of the world, the US has lagged in offshore wind production.

There are several reason for this delay, according to Firestone.

The US didn’t have a regulatory system in place for managing offshore wind until 2005, more than a decade after Europe. Then it took the country four years to develop and formalize rules. Then the global recession paused ventures into new energy sources.

“Along with it we had the fracking boom which resulted in significant cost savings to consumers on their electricity bills,” Firestone said. “So the price premium that you would have to pay for offshore wind became much more expensive.”

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Eventually, developing offshore wind farms became cost-effective as technology advanced.

In recent years, major domestic and international energy players have begun bidding on large sites, spurred on by interest from local and state governments. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, for instance, wants to build giant wind farms off the coast of Long Island over the next decade.

The entrance of established players helps because they bring their wherewithal to an industry intimidating to newcomers. Offshore wind construction is considerably harder than onshore wind production and requires large upfront capital investments. Firestone said that the expertise developed through offshore oil drilling is now guiding the way for offshore wind.

There are currently 13 offshore wind projects in 10 states, with a potential of almost 6,000 megawatts of capacity. Most of these farms won’t come online until after 2020, but in combination with incoming wind farms on land, they could power millions of homes.

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And that’s just the start.

As the industry develops, the growing supply chain will help transition it into an economy of scale, which will dramatically reduce costs and increase the potential for wind energy to be stored and transported across the country.

In Germany, offshore wind power generation grew 50% last year, and China expects to grow its already enormous offshore production by 77% this year.

In the US, wind now enjoys broad bipartisan support. Some of the biggest proponents of wind are Republican-controlled states — Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

The reasons for this are understandable. Wind power promises energy independence and a huge boost to the economy — long-term, high-paying jobs for engineers, mechanics, and many more workers.

Big utilities companies are coming around to the potential, too. In West Virginia, also known as coal country, the state’s largest utility, Appalachian Power, recently rebuffed the governor when he asked for more coal plants to be built. Appalachian’s president, Chris Beam said: “We don’t have any more coal plants. We’re not going to build any more coal plants. That’s not going to happen.”

The reason they’ve moved beyond coal in coal country? Because renewable energy makes long-term sense for the company’s bottom line. Coal is a finite resource; wind and solar aren’t.

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“In certain parts of the country [wind farms] are the cheapest things you can build even without subsidies,” Firestone said. “You can’t forget that fossil fuels have subsides baked into the tax codes.”

“Commercial solar is the cheapest thing that you can build and prices will likely continue to come down again as technology continues to improve,” he said.

Offshore production represents a whole new frontier and it all began with a small island that, the year before, had relied upon one of the most outdated energy systems in the country.

Sometimes revolutions begin with a single small push.


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