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Town approved to borrow for wind turbines

PORTSMOUTH – The town has received approval to borrow up to $2.6 million in Clean Renewable Energy Bonds to finance the proposed purchase and installation of one or two wind turbines at the public middle and high schools to offset their use of electricity.

The town received permission last week from the Internal Revenue Service to issue the interest-free bonds as part of a program created under the federal Energy Tax Incentives Act of 2005. The IRS has approved the borrowing of $800 million in bonds by 610 renewable energy projects across the country.

Portsmouth was one of two entities in Rhode Island to be approved for funding through the program. The Narragansett Bay Commission will also be allowed to issue $2.6 million in bonds to put up a wind turbine at its Fields Point wastewater treatment plant in Providence and pursue a biogas project at its Bucklin Point treatment facility in East Providence.

The approvals were announced Saturday at Roger Williams University during the inaugural meeting of the Rhode Island Wind Alliance, which has been formed to promote wind power projects in the state. Officials from Bristol, Warren, South Kingstown, Westerly and other communities along with representatives from Roger Williams University, Brown University and other groups were at the conference.

They aim to build enough wind turbines in Rhode Island to meet Governor Carcieri’s pledge during his State of the State address in January to have 15 percent of the state’s energy be supplied by wind power.

The first and only turbine in Rhode Island that can provide enough power for more than a handful of houses was built in March by Portsmouth Abbey, a private institution that operates a Catholic school off West Main Road. The town started looking at installing turbines at the public schools before the abbey’s $1.2 million machine went up.

The local Economic Development Committee has started a feasibility study, exploring the financial benefits of investing in wind power and whether the schools are feasible sites.

The committee received a $25,000 grant from the state’s Renewable Energy Fund earlier this year to carry out the study, which has been endorsed by the Town Council and the School Committee.

“The abbey did a lot of legwork,” said Richard Talipsky, chairman of the Portsmouth Economic Development Committee. “We were involved throughout the process. We’ve been looking at all different ways to save energy, and the most bang for the buck right now is from wind energy. So we said, “˜Let’s go after that.’ “

It is unclear where the turbines might be installed at each school, but there are indications that major wind turbines would work in those general areas. Prevailing wind speeds measured at the nearby abbey suggest there is more than enough wind to make turbines economically successful.

On Saturday, Gary Gump of the Portsmouth Economic Development Committee said that installing turbines could reduce the cost of electricity at the high and middle schools by at least 60 percent.

The feasibility study is expected to be completed by consultants next spring. It will include a recommendation on whether to purchase turbines and, if so, how many. The Town Council would then make a decision on the recommendation.

If the council were to go ahead with the plan and wanted to use the Clean Renewable Energy bonds to finance it, voters would have to approve a referendum question, which could be placed on the ballot in the fall. Under the rules governing the IRS program, 10 percent of the bonds must be issued before the end of next year.

A recent survey carried out in Portsmouth and Bristol, which is also considering purchasing a turbine, showed general support for wind energy.

The results of the survey of 723 registered voters chosen randomly in the two towns showed that four out of five people polled supported installing a turbine within sight of their homes as long as they cannot hear it. The vast majority of respondents in Portsmouth also reacted favorably to installing turbines at the high school, middle school, Raytheon’s offices and the abbey.

The state-financed survey was designed by Lefteris Pavlides, a professor of architecture at Roger Williams University and a wind energy expert, and Jana Hesser, a professor at Brown University’s School of Medicine who also works as a survey manager for the state Department of Health.

Investing in wind turbines seems to make economic sense, Gump said.

“If we can get a couple of these things up and going, it’s going to cap energy costs for these schools,” said Gump, the head of the group’s Sustainable Energy Subcommittee. “If we can nibble away at that then it means there’s less tax pressure for all of us.”

By Alex Kuffner

Journal Staff Writer