An Interview with Jessica Willi

Block Island Tourism

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The turbines themselves don’t seem to a significant impact on Block Island.  Some tourists do come because they want to see the wind farm.  There are two or three businesses that have popped up to take people out to see them up close.  It’s a great fishing spot so small charter boat captains take people out there.  Before the wind farm, that spot was mostly fished by Block Island charter boat captains, of which there are only a few.  Now they’re coming from all over because the fishing is so good there.  It’s like shooting fish in a barrel because the turbines act like a natural reef that draws the fish up.  But overall, the Block Island economy is not seeing much impact from the turbines.

Where you can see the turbines best is off Mohegan Bluffs at the southeast corner of the island by the lighthouse.  This happens to be the Number 1 place people want to see on Block Island.  The turbines are placed in the premiere viewshed for the whole island.  They’re several miles away so you can see them clearly, but they’re not next door.  You can’t hear them at all; they’re far enough away that the sound is distributed over the waves so there’s no noise.  You can see the blinking lights, so there is light pollution at night.  But otherwise they’re just sort of there. 

I saw one online posting from a visitor who thought the turbines are so ugly that he’s never going back there again, but the turbines really only impact the small number of people who live in that area where the turbines are in their viewshed and can see the turbines and the lights at night. 

From the perspective of someone who lives on Block Island and likes to go up to the bluffs and take pictures, it used to be that you would look out and there was just nothing there.  Now there’s something there.  Some people liked that feeling of there being nothing there, others it doesn’t affect that way.  The turbines are just there.  If it was just the turbines, nothing very tangible would have changed. 

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A View From The Bluffs

Block Island Wind Farm is the first commercial offshore wind farm in the US. It was built from 2015-2016 and consists of five turbines.
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Where Block Island has seen the greatest benefits from the offshore wind project have been in the environmental improvement and the cable to the mainland.

On the environmental side, we’re away from the diesel fuel and now the island is mostly using wind power.  Prior to the wind farm, Block Island got its electricity from a diesel generator.  The diesel fuel was brought to the island in trucks carried by the ferry from the mainland.  Now we’ve been able to eliminate that.  While we still have the diesel generator as a backup if needed, we now have regular, steady power thanks to the cable to the mainland and that has had a real impact on the island. 

So this is where the benefits of the undersea cable to the mainland come in.  Because we have steady power, we now know that if we use a certain amount of kilowatt hours in our house or business, this is what our bill is going to be because the kilowatt hours are purchased ahead of time.  That’s something that Block Islanders never had before.  We had fuel surcharges from bringing the diesel fuel over on the ferry.  You could use the same amount of power from month to month and the charges would go up $200-$300 because of the surcharges.  You couldn’t budget or plan ahead. 

For a household, that’s hard enough, but for businesses that were paying such a high rate for electricity, they weren’t able to set it into their costs and know from month to month what it would be.  This was a real problem, but there also was the fact that it wasn’t steady power.  We had a lot of problems with brownouts and blackouts.  During the summer, when the system got overloaded and went down and the island power went out during the busiest August weekend, local businesses serving the tourist market could lose thousands of dollars.  Restaurants and bars would not only lose business, but also their refrigerators.  So they were constantly replacing the electronics and appliances.  For your house that’s bad enough, but for the businesses to be replacing their big refrigerators, it was a huge strain on their operations. 

For hotels, it was cost prohibitive to have air conditioning.  The bigger hotels could afford it and they could charge several times more for their rooms because of it.  Now, almost all of the hotels and inns have air conditioning or they’re putting it in without having to raise the room rates significantly.  It makes it more appealing for people who want to visit here.  So that’s a big thing – the steady reliable power.  Steady in price and also in delivery. 

The other thing that the cable delivered to Block Island is fiber optic service.  Last year our anchor institutions – the school, the medical center, the police department, the town hall and the library -- were connected to fiber.  For a place like the school, this has been a total game-changer.  We were still doing testing on paper, in spite of a Rhode Island Department of Education mandate that we should be online.  But we couldn’t do it because if more than two people were online at the school, the network would crash.  So we had to get a waiver every year.  The students were still taking paper tests with Number 2 pencils until last year.  Having the fiber to the medical center and being able to do tele-medicine also has had a big impact on the island.  Even being able to sit outside the library on a nice day and get Wi-Fi has been great. 

The next step will be the buildout of the fiber network throughout the island so that home owners will be able to access broadband services.  For the year-round residents, it’s exciting knowing that the fiber will be coming throughout the whole island.  This will have an impact on the local economy.   For example, second home owners can come out here for a month rather than a week because they finally can work from home on Block Island. 

All of the things coming through on the cable have been a positive by bringing lower prices and making everything a little more hospitable. 

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