NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (AP) — Construction has begun off Rhode Island's coast on the nation's first offshore wind farm, a milestone that federal and state officials say will help the fledgling U.S. industry surge ahead.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said Monday that lenders, regulators and stakeholders can now see a path forward.
"It's great to witness a pioneering moment in U.S. history," she said during a boat tour of the site. "We are learning from this in what we do elsewhere. I think it will help the country understand the potential that exists here."
Deepwater Wind is building a five-turbine wind farm off Block Island, Rhode Island, which it expects to power 17,000 homes as early as next year. It began attaching the first of the steel foundations to the ocean floor Sunday. The first one touching the seabed is known in the industry as the "first steel in the water."
Deepwater Wind CEO Jeffrey Grybowski said it was a "spectacular" moment. The company took officials and project supporters to the site by boat Monday to celebrate.
They saw the first of two steel pieces for the first foundation in the water. It has four legs and braces like a stool and rises about 30 feet above the waterline. An installation barge with a large crane was next to it, and two barges carrying additional foundation components were nearby. The foundations will be installed by mid-September, Grybowski said.
The wind farm should be operational in the third quarter of 2016, Grybowski said. Deepwater Wind also plans to build a wind farm of at least 200 turbines between Block Island and Martha's Vineyard.
"We want to build more and larger offshore wind projects, up and down the East Coast," Grybowski said.
Gov. Gina Raimondo said Rhode Island is a leader in a fast-growing industry that is creating jobs.
"It's the beginning of something great in Rhode Island," Raimondo said.
The offshore wind industry is far more advanced in Europe. Developers and industry experts say it has been slow to start in the U.S. because of regulatory hurdles, opposition from fossil fuel interests and the trials and tribulations of doing something for the first time.
Cape Wind received approval five years ago to build the nation's first offshore wind farm, a 130-turbine project off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. That project stalled after opponents challenged it in court.
While there have been setbacks, Jewell said the federal government has now sold nine leases for offshore wind projects in federal waters. The government is poised to auction a new lease off New Jersey this year and is assessing potential sites off multiple states. The Block Island wind farm is in state waters.
"This is an important first step, important momentum. A lot is happening across the country," said Abigail Ross Hopper, director if the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
One hurdle, however, is that the renewable energy industry has to fight, regularly, to keep the tax credits and incentives it has, while the well-established oil and gas industry has tax credits it no longer needs, Jewell said. She said that should change.
Several environmental leaders also made the trip. Collin O'Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said it was overwhelming to see the start of construction.
"To see it in American waters fills me with patriotic pride," he said. "This idea that we could create a new industry and tens of thousands of jobs, spur manufacturing and protect wildlife, it's just an incredible opportunity."