The last few pilings are currently being driven into the seafloor, securing the foundations for the first offshore wind farm in the United States. When the five-turbine operation is up and running in 2016, the residents of Block Island, Rhode Island, will be connected for the first time to the mainland power grid. This will allow islanders to stop burning diesel fuel—currently their only source of power—and will cut their highest-in-the-nation electricity bills nearly in half.

While construction on this small demonstration-level farm is progressing, many proposed offshore wind farms along the east coast have stalled out. Financing, engineering, and regulatory hurdles all get in the way, but for many projects one of the primary stumbling blocks is public opposition from those that fear what those spinning white arms will do to the view. Even though visibility is such a hot-button issue—it was at the heart of the failed proposal to build a 130-turbine operation in Nantucket Sound—it is considered, typically, as an afterthought, says Woods-affiliated postdoctoral scholar Rob Griffin, an economist with the Natural Capital Project.

Griffin is the lead author on a research paper published in Marine Policy this month, which describes a novel approach to the siting of wind energy facilities, by accounting for view impacts and potential wind energy values up front. The authors used data from the Block Island project, even though it has already been sited, to demonstrate how the approach works. If this approach were adopted and used to plan other proposed projects, Griffin said, it could potentially save years of time and millions in litigation.

First, the authors mapped the locations that are most and least visible to all viewers across the landscape. To do this, they  identified home locations on Block Island using public databases, and assessed whether the homes are occupied year-round or seasonally. Figuring out where tourists visit was less straightforward. To approximate where people go, the researchers looked to the digital image-sharing site, flickr, for pictures geotagged from within their study area. Each geotagged photo uploaded to the site is a record that someone was present at a particular location. With information on the distribution and duration of viewers in the study area, the researchers then used a viewshed algorithm to determine the field of view each person can see across the landscape.

This approach turns the current visibility approach for siting on its head. Typically a project is sited based on other concerns, such as engineering feasibility and cost first, and only then do planners conduct a viewshed analysis to determine who is able to see the turbines.

Next, they mapped where wind energy resources are the greatest and thus where turbines are more likely to produce positive economic returns. These maps combine information on engineering costs for various potential siting locations with harnessable wind energy at each location. The cost data was trickier to get than the tourism and residential data, because wind project costs are often proprietary information. Griffin acquired initial figures through secret coffee meetings with industry insiders while living in Germany (as a visiting researcher at the University of Bremerhaven), where offshore wind projects are common.

“That was one of the major tasks of this project, to do an exhaustive search of costs, down to nuts and bolts basically,” he said. “It’s difficult information to get. You can’t go to the store and go buy a wind turbine. The people that do buy them are big multi-national corporations,” Griffin said. He added that the transactions are contractual and typically include non-disclosure agreements.

“I had some really clandestine meetings in restaurants,” Griffin said, “where people were writing stuff down in napkins, or not writing it down at all.”

The authors weren’t able to use that data to crunch numbers, but it gave Griffin baseline figures with which to evaluate cost estimates he was able to dig up independently. Those costs were combined with estimates of the wind power available at different spots, and then mapped.

The economic analysis presented in the paper shows that the Block Island project, built by Providence-based Deepwater Wind, will likely lose money, even though sited in the most lucrative location.

With five turbines, it’s too small to enjoy economies of scale for all of the installation costs. But for Deepwater Wind, the point is to demonstrate that this type of project can be successful, Griffin said.

“By having successfully done this in one location, that gives them a huge advantage over companies that are not proven,” he said.

The company has a much bigger offshore windfarm project planned a few miles to the southeast of the Block Island location. Many other projects, by various companies, offshore of Maryland, New Jersey, and other states, are in exploratory and planning stages.

Altogether, the Block Island analysis highlights the location where the turbines are being built as ideal for both minimizing visibility and maximizing harvested energy. This type of analysis could have sped the Block Island project along and increased public support from the beginning, said co-author Anne Guerry, a Woods senior research associate and Natural Capital Project lead scientist.

“Rhode Island went through a huge public engagement process and visual issues came up a lot,” Guerry said. “Some of that process could have been reduced by using this type of analysis. This approach doesn’t make visibility concerns go away, but it acknowledges them upfront and allows for more detailed discussions of who can see what from where.”

Griffin hopes future projects will consider using visibility and wind energy values in their siting analyses—and he and his co-authors have made it easier to do so by building their approach into the Natural Capital Proejct's free and open-source InVEST software toolset.

“In the Block Island analysis, we showed that the project was well-sited, considering both visibility and the energy resources," Griffin said. "It doesn’t really help after the fact, but for all these new locations where the location is up in the air, this analysis can be really helpful.”

Co-authors of "Incorporating the Visibility of Coastal Energy Infrastructure Into Multi-Criteria Siting Decisions," include Griffin, Nicolas Chaumont, Douglas Denu, Guerry, Choon-Ki Kim and Woods Consulting Professor Mary Ruckelshaus (Natural Capital Project).