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Suffolk Close Up: The other magical island

“Close to Home, A World Away” is part of the name of a magazine on Block Island. Some 40 miles east of Shelter Island, the two islands are of comparative size. The land area of Shelter Island is 12 square miles and Block Island is 9.7 square miles.

Both are bucolic, indeed worlds away from the tensions of so much of the Northeast. But a difference now is how Block Island gets its electricity, which is from the first off-shore wind farm in the United States.

“It’s really something to see, if you’ve never set eyes upon an offshore wind farm” notes the Block Island Guide.

The five turbines regularly “supply all of the island’s power needs — and more.” Excess electricity they generate is sent to Rhode Island through a new undersea cable. The mainland of Rhode Island, of which Block Island is a part, can be seen nine miles to its north.

“The wind farm was built at a cost of about $300 million,” says the Guide. “It is owned and operated by Orsted, a Danish renewable energy company that works to ‘take tangible action to create a world that runs entirely on green energy.’ … On the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, offshore wind farms are now being planned by Orsted for Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia. The Block Island project is the progenitor of the trend for more offshore wind power …”

Several major wind farms to serve Shelter Island and the rest of the Long Island Power Authority service area are to rise in coming years off the southern coast of Long Island and in the Atlantic well southeast of Block.  

Block Island’s combination of wind energy and solar power — a large number of structures on Block Island are bedecked with rooftop solar photovoltaic panels — provides a model.

For 92 years, before the offshore wind turbines arrived and in December 2016 their blades began twirling, Block Island ran on electricity produced by diesel generators operated by the Block Island Power Company.

“We were importing nearly 1 million gallons of diesel fuel every year,” Jeffrey Wright, the company’s CEO, was quoted in 2017 in Power Line, an online publication of American Clean Power. The cost of electricity on Block Island was thus triple the national average.

And there were mishaps. Earlier in 2016, one of the diesel generators caught fire.

And, of course, the greenhouse gasses emitted from the diesel generators were substantial. As climate change hits the world mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels, getting off electricity generated by oil, coal and gas is imperative.

My wife and I were on Block Island on this Memorial Day weekend to celebrate our 61st wedding anniversary. (I met this lass from Huntington our first week at Antioch College in Ohio.)

We’ve been to the island a good number of times through the decades, usually going there on our sailboat. Considering the turbulence of the ocean between Montauk and Block — and, oh, that frequent fog! — I’d rather take the Viking Superstar ferry from Montauk. There’s also, in season, like the Viking ferry, a ferry from New London, Conn. to Block. A year-round ferry runs between R.I. and Block Island.

Block Island is a piece of New England, an hour-and-a-half ferry ride, 14 miles, from Montauk.

But it’s far more than that.

There are more than 20 Victorian Era hotels and inns on the island. The houses that dot the landscape are similarly classic. Most of their settings are circumscribed by stone walls. Only in Vermont have I seen more stone walls.

More than 47 percent of Block Island is under conservation protection. The Nature Conservancy, which has had a huge role in preserving so much of Block Island, has called it “one of the last great places” in the western hemisphere.

The Block Island Land Trust is a municipal conservation organization enabled by Rhode Island state legislation in 1986 and funded by a 3% transfer fee on Block Island land transactions. Its mission is “to protect ecologically sensitive areas, open space and land for agricultural use, preserve viewsheds and provide recreational opportunities.”

Interestingly, the shoreline of Block Island, much of it of soft, white sand, also features a fringe of Caribbean-like turquoise water.