Many a town administrator would like to be in Adm. Rick Gurnon’s shoes.
Gurnon, the president of Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay, estimates his school saved $250,000 over the past year in electric bills because of power generated by a 660-kilowatt, 242-foot wind turbine installed in June 2006. And that’s with a relatively low average wind speed last year, he said.
Gurnon expects to save enough to pay for the $1.4 million turbine in less than six years.
Now, the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative, launched last June by the Cape Light Compact in collaboration with the town of Barnstable and Barnstable County, hopes to help local towns enjoy those same benefits. The Compact is the regional energy group that purchases electricity through New York-based ConEdison Solutions on behalf of its 170,000 customers on Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod.
Under the proposed plan, Cape and Islands towns would agree to build enough turbines on their combined lands to take care of municipal energy needs. The cooperative would finance and own the turbines and sell energy back to the towns.
Not every town would need to build a turbine, but those that did would be paid a leasing fee by the cooperative for the right to use the land. The cooperative would help insulate the towns against future increases in energy costs, says Maggie Downey, administrator of the compact.
Meanwhile a bill now in legislative conference committee would help the towns and Massachusetts Maritime Academy get more for the electricity their turbines generate.
The proposed regulations would allow the owners of large turbines to be credited for excess electricity they generate at the price they would pay on the retail market.
It is known as net metering, and Downey believes it will be included in the bill.
Here’s how it works:
The maritime academy, for example, pays the retail price, 17 cents per kilowatt-hour, for any electricity it needs beyond that generated by the wind turbine, Gurnon said. Currently, state law allows the owners of 60-kilowatt turbines – roughly one-tenth the size of the MMA turbine – to credit any surplus power sent to the power grid on windy days only against what they have to buy on days when it’s too calm to meet their own needs. The net metering provision in the state energy bill would more than triple that size to 2-megawatt turbines.
So MMA, which is now paid a wholesale price of 7 cents per kilowatt-hour for its surplus electricity, could apply that power against its total electric bill, at the retail price of 17 cents per kilowatt-hour. That more than doubles what the electricity they generate is worth to them.
It also frees towns of the requirement that they locate turbines next to a major power consumer such as a school or a wastewater treatment plant. If towns get retail-priced credit for their electricity, they can put a turbine anywhere.
The cooperative would receive the money from selling renewable energy credits, Downey said. Utility companies buy these from “green” energy power generators to meet federal and state requirements that a certain percentage of their power be from alternative energy sources.
The cooperative’s approach also removes several other major hurdles that have stymied wind turbines in towns.
Turbines can cost $3 million to $4 million each for the large 1.5-megawatt size. Economics often have forced municipalities to go with private developers who pay for the turbines, but insist on maximizing their size and the number of towers to make a profit.
That inspired stiff resistance from voters in towns such as Orleans and Eastham, where residents were upset at the size and number of turbines, and the idea that a private business would be making a profit off public lands.
But not every town finds the current situation daunting. Meghan Amsler, co-chairwoman of the Falmouth Energy Committee, said her town is almost ready to seek bids on a turbine that will power its wastewater treatment plant. Much like the maritime academy, the town is convinced that, even with having to sell excess power at the wholesale rate, the wind turbine is a good deal.
“We pushed really hard in Falmouth for municipal ownership, and that model is so much stronger than the private developer’s model,” she said.
Three towns on Martha’s Vineyard, and Provincetown, have articles on town meeting warrants asking voters for approval to begin negotiating with the energy cooperative. Downey said her staff would be making visits to other Cape towns later in the year after the cooperative gets a ruling from the IRS on whether they can extend the program to residential users.
25 March 2008
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