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The town may ask Block Island residents to fund a paid energy advisor who could help organize an effort to bring the island’s energy future under its own control, including, as a first step, polling community sentiment about erecting huge wind turbines.
Preliminary results from a recent study say turbines make sense for power generation in the island’s isolated setting, and recommends that three of the big machines be placed on Block Island.
In the past, residents have objected to smaller turbines erected on private property, which neighbors have complained are excessively noisy. Discussion at a recent public meeting acknowledged that public sentiment could be an obstacle to erecting more turbines, either on the island itself or out to sea. There are many more related questions to be answered as the town tackles the complex issue of the future of Block Island Power Company (BIPCo), whose rates are currently three times as high as those in mainland Rhode Island. First Warden Kim Gaffett suggested this week that the town could use a professional advisor to help navigate them.
The position, Gaffett suggested, could be funded by extending a one-cent-per-KWH surcharge that has been on Block Island ratepayers’ bills for the past two-and-a-half years. The surcharge was designed to pay for the recent study from energy consulting firm HDR, and is due to expire soon.
If the town and BIPCo agree on extending the surcharge, they could approach the state Public Utilities Commission and its division staff for permission to continue it, creating a $50,000-a-year revenue stream.
Gaffett made the suggestion after hearing a presentation from Everett Shorey, who is serving as a town volunteer on energy issues. Shorey talked the Town Council through his summary of the HDR report at this week’s council meeting, Monday, August 6.
HDR was hired three years ago, after BIPCo’s latest rate hike, to do a long-range planning study on the Block Island Power Company. The company concluded that an undersea cable that would hook the island up with the mainland power grid would be financially risky. But two things apparently make good financial sense: big wind turbines, and a strong energy conservation program.
What to do with that information is up to the community, and the current Town Council doesn’t appear likely to let it slide to the back burner. One of the council’s first acts was to create a task force to look at energy issues. Shorey serves on it, and he’s also the town advocate on the three-member panel that hired HDR and is reviewing its study, along with a BIPCo representative and a state utilities official.
A lively discussion after Shorey’s report this week will probably be the first of many, as the council begins to invite public involvement in energy issues.
“I went into this as a cable advocate,” said Shorey in response to questions about whether a cable is really a risky proposition. “I really thought a cable would be a good deal for the island, but the longer I listened [to HDR’s presentation], the more I was convinced it’s not.”
A cable would be a huge project with an unsure payoff, he said. Similar projects along the Maine coast were simpler and cheaper because the islands were much closer to the mainland, he said, and because there was more of the necessary physical infrastructure already in place near the coast.
Hooking into a cable that the state runs out to an offshore wind farm, however, would be a much more financially attractive proposition, he said, if it ever happened.
BIPCo principal Cliff McGinnes Sr. said he was “convinced that, long-term, a cable is the right thing for the island.” As a public entity, the town might be able to get grants and other funding sources that would make it more feasible than it has been for the power company, he said.
Gaffett voiced a different view: “It makes a lot of sense to be independent where you are if possible,” she said.
Shorey suggested that the council stay in touch with the local task force, which is getting ready to report on issues surrounding BIPCo and alternative energy generation. The council should also initiate a community effort to examine where big wind turbines could be placed on the island, something that Shorey recommended pursuing regardless of state plans to create an offshore wind turbine or wave farm, plans now indefinitely on hold because of resistance from the state legislature. A conservation effort would also have to be rooted in broad community support, he said.
Councilor Dick Martin asked about taking a trip to Portsmouth Abbey to see the wind turbine there, erected by island resident Henry duPont two years ago and the same size as the ones HDR are recommending for the island. The visit is planned for September and will include members of the Planning Board, Gaffett said.
Alternative energy engineer Chris Warfel, who is serving on the local energy task group, questioned why the HDR study recommends three turbines, a number he fears could overload BIPCo’s existing system. More engineering work would need to be done to study that, Shorey answered.
Councilor Peter Baute wondered why the town shouldn’t wait for the state to install its offshore wind farm. Shorey recommended pursuing both projects in tandem, and Gaffett said that the town probably won’t have much control over whether the state plan ever becomes reality, while it can control wind turbines within its shores.
McGinnes said that “in hindsight, Henry duPont was correct” when he said that the bigger a windmill is, the less “objectionable noise” it will cause. Many present agreed that big turbines like the one at Portsmouth Abbey are virtually silent.
Sarah McGinnes and Kay Lewis both spoke passionately in favor of alternative energy options. Windmills create a “visual impact and an auditory impact,” said Lewis. If the island community can be reassured about the possible auditory impact of a big turbine, “that makes the discussion easier. We’re going to have to adapt our eyeballs in order to continue to live in this great place.”
“This is something we do for our children and our children’s children,” agreed Sarah McGinnes. To make the right decision, “We need to know the pros and cons for onshore and offshore” siting.
At the end of the discussion, Shorey brought the council up to speed on a federal bill making its way through Congress. The bill requires all electric utilities to provide 15 percent of their power from renewable resources. Small companies are specifically exempted, so BIPCo, along with other tiny rural utilities, would not be required to comply.
“Do we want to be in or out of a mandate like that?” Shorey wondered. “What’s going to happen out of those bills is anyone’s guess,” he said. But the council could consider taking a stand and asking that Block Island not be exempted from the requirement.
“In principal I’m all for that,” said Gaffett.
By Pippa Jack
13 August 2007
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