Construction of the nation's first offshore wind farm began Sunday. A Seattle company plans to construct the nation's first offshore floating turbines in Coos Bay, Ore.

Share story

Workers set the steel foundation of the nation’s first offshore wind farm Sunday about three miles off the coast of Block Island, a 1,000-person tourist town in Rhode Island.

Deepwater Wind, the company behind the project, expects the wind farm to start operating next year and provide power to 17,000 homes, according to The Associated Press.

More offshore wind projects are in the works around the nation,  including one on the Pacific coast, where a deeper continental shelf makes securing turbines a challenge.

A Seattle company last February gained federal approval to move ahead with its application to build a floating offshore wind farm about 15 miles off the coast of Coos Bay, Ore.

Principle Power, the company behind Oregon’s Windfloat project, relies on a triangular ballast platform with a mooring system and anchors to keep it afloat and in place. From the water’s surface, the wind-power generating structures would be as tall as the Space Needle.

Principle Power expects its Coos Bay turbines to generate enough electricity (30 megawatts) to power 8,000 homes.

If all went well, the company last year said it would begin operating the wind farm in 2017, but that launch date is “probably not realistic” anymore, said project manager Kevin Banister when reached by phone Tuesday.

To receive more Department of Energy funding, the project needs to reach a power off-take agreement. But a bill that would have directed Oregon utilities to pass off the project’s above-market energy price to electricity consumers stalled in the state’s legislature.

“Project finance depends on a power purchase agreement. That’s the piece we’re having conversations with our (project) supporters to figure out,” Banister said.

He said land-based wind and solar power needed similar subsidies to find a foothold in the energy market before building to scale.

The cost of the Windfloat project’s electricity “is above market price, but it’s not outside, in any sense, what other technologies have received,” Bannister said. “We still think it’s a really good project for Oregon and the West Coast.”

Nationwide, there’s enough windy coastline to produce as much as 4,223 gigawatts of power through offshore wind technology, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). That’s roughly four times the current capacity of the nation’s electric grid.

Offshore winds could generate electricity more easily than land-based systems, according to the NREL, because ocean winds are stronger and more consistent than those on land.

Washington’s coastal waters have potential for offshore wind power, primarily in deep water, the agency found. Oregon and California, with more coastline and stronger winds, are even more suitable than the Evergreen state.

Washington gets about 3.1 percent of its energy from wind power, according to 2013 data from the state’s Commerce Department.

In 2003, the United Kingdom generated about 9 percent of its power from offshore wind, according to a government energy statistics report.