Winds of Change
Wind energy projects have had mixed results in Rhode Island over the past decade - with a lot of discussion about whether they can be a successful and affordable source of power for the future. This week we begin the first of a two-part series - with a look at one community investing $18 million in three turbines, hoping to stabilize its energy costs for the next several decades.
Watch our earlier reports on wind turbines in Rhode Island, A Lot of Wind (1-13-2011), and New Metering (1-20-2011).
Wind energy projects have had mixed results in Rhode Island over the past decade, with these turbines on the Providence waterfront an example of how it can be done successfully. This week, we begin a two-part series - as we take a look at one community that’s invested $18 million to stabilize its energy costs over the next couple of decades.
In a remote section of Western Coventry the foundations for 10 wind turbines are taking shape. This one, and two others just down the road, are projected to produce enough electricity to save the town of West Warwick, and its taxpayers, $40 million over the next 25 years.
Presley: ``We’ll be the first town in the state of Rhode Island, I believe the first town in New England, because I don’t know of another that would have 100 percent renewable electricity.’’
Town Manager Fred Presley said he began looking into renewable energy a couple of years ago. After all, West Warwick spends nearly one and a half million dollars annually to power all of its municipal buildings, schools and waste water treatment plant - which uses huge amounts of electricity.
With the help a consultant the town put out a detailed request for proposal for a wind project.
Presley: ``We expected to get answers back saying: either yes you can do this, or not any answers. What we didn’t expect to get an answer back saying: yes you can do this, and by the way they’re already sited. That was kind of icing on the cake :08
They didn’t know at the time that Mark DePasquale, a North Kingstown developer who founded Wind Energy Development in late 2009, had already received approval from the town of Coventry to build 10 turbines, two on town land, and eight on leased parcels of private landowners. That put West Warwick’s plans on a much faster track.
After a series of public meetings, 80 percent of the voters last year approved borrowing $18 million to pay for three turbines in western Coventry, which the town will own outright. Presley said it was a pretty straightforward pitch:
Presley: ``For a town that’s in a distressed economic state just to have the ability to say: I can tell you what I’m going to pay next year on electric and I can tell you what I’m going to pay in 25 years on electric with a high level of confidence. You can’t do that. You can’t tell me what you’re going to pay next month on your house and then what you’re going to pay in 25 years on that same house.’’
The turbines have not come without some opposition. Coventry Town Councilwoman Karen Carlson, was elected in 2012 after DePasquale had already received approval for the 10 turbines. She represents the western part of town where the 414-foot turbines are being built.
Carlson: ``To me the basic reason this happened is because when another town said no, we said yes. ‘’
Carlson said DePasquale had turbine proposals rejected in several other communities. Five years ago hundreds of people packed the high school auditorium in North Kingstown to oppose a proposed wind project. Part of it was not-in-my-back yard and part of it was the very public failure of a turbine in Portsmouth that left taxpayers on the hook there for more than a million dollars.
Carlson last month won unanimous approval from her fellow council members for a new wind ordinance that will require developers to go through some additional steps to put up turbines going forward. It also has provisions for decommissioning if the project fails.
Carlson: ``This way we’re not stuck with 10, 440-foot turbines that become yard art because they don’t run anymore. red Presley has stated: `We’re going to be benefitting from this, and it’s not in our backyard. Well, it’s in my backyard and I hope it goes well, but it’s been very disruptive.’’
Presley: ``I don’t know if I ever said it quite like that but it’s true to an extent. There’s no doubt about it that’s probably one of the reasons why the voters were so quick to approve it was because they don’t have to deal with it in their backyard.’’
Carlson said DePasquale is offering energy to power Coventry’s town buildings as part of the deal to use town land, but the process has been repeatedly delayed.
Hummel: ``What is your main concern? ‘’
Carlson: ``Is this really going to happen? I don’t know. Are we really going to have power produced? Every time we talk, it gets pushed six months back.’’
DePasquale tells The Hummel Report the delays have largely been caused by disputes with National Grid over connection costs. And for critics worried about noise and flicker he points to the 400-foot turbine he built in his own back yard, literally - right next to his house in North Kingstown.
The technology has also changed over the past five years. Vensys, based in Germany, will oversee the installation of the Coventry turbines, all of which are direct-drive instead of a gearbox design, like the failed Portsmouth turbine.
Presley: ``They’re a partner in the project, so it’s not just Mark as the developer, Wind Energy Development coming in and doing this; Vensys is actually in there every step of the way. Every time they do a piece another of the foundations, Vensys flies in a team from Germany. And they test and oversee every aspect of the construction and they’ll continue to do that. And they’re going to be the ones installing the turbines. It will be Mark’s crews that he’ll bring in but Vensys is the one that’s actually leading it, and they’ve done thousands of these. In fact they’re willing to give us all these guarantees that if certain milestones aren’t reached, they’re going to pay the bill for us if the turbines go down, if any one of them go down for any length of time, they pay us above and beyond what we pay for electricity; and they give us a 10-year bumper-to-bumper if you will on the turbines, which is unheard of.’’
DePasquale: ``The interconnection from National Grid is out where those barrels are down the end. It comes into the site…’’
We went for a tour of the site two weeks ago, where DePasquale gave Presley an update on the project.
Hummel: ``As you were walking around, what was going through your head?’’
Presley: ``Just impressed with the amount of work that has been done, in the short time we were just out there a little over a month ago.’’
Presley says delivery of the turbines is scheduled for April , testing in May and power should be available by early June for West Warwick.
Hummel: ``Do you think this is a unique set of circumstances for West Warwick or do you think this is a prototype that can translate to other parts of the state?’’
Presley: ``I think you’re going to see it transferring to other parts of the state absolutely. Because it’s not just the monetary issue and the issues with the grid that I spoke about, but it just makes sense to look at renewable energy for a lot of reasons.’’
DePasquale: ``I hope that other people in the state really understand how important it is. That there is no impact to these communities and how it could help secure energy and preserve open space and protect farmers.’’
Next week, we sit down with Mark DePasquale for his first extended on-camera interview. He talks about his vision for wind energy in the state - something he believes in strongly enough that he’s bought the failed Portsmouth turbine for more than a million dollars. This week’s he’s having it dismantled and will soon put up his own turbine at the same location.
Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.