CHARLESTOWN – They’d stand high above the rural landscape for years to come, spinning day and night and producing enough electricity to power 8,000 to 10,000 homes.
But plans for two, 262-foot wind turbines hinge largely on a deal with National Grid that isn’t expected by Thursday’s public hearing, putting a shadow of uncertainty over Whalerock Renewable Energy LLC’s project.
Charlestown resident Michael Carlino and his father-in-law Larry LaBlanc want to build two wind turbines on 81 acres north of Route 1, between Kings Factory Road and East Quail Run. The 1.8-megawatt, Vestas-built structures would have 171-foot blades that reach as high as 410 feet into the air.
Unprecedented in scale, proponents say the Ninigret Hamlet wind project puts Charlestown at the forefront of renewable energy production, and helps the state reach its goal of drawing 15 percent of its electricity from wind-powered sources.
“You’re creating green energy,” said Town Councilor Forrester Safford. “I look at it that way: it’s stopping maybe one little more bit of oil being used in this world.”
Opponents charge that the council’s role as the sole permitting authority for wind projects usurps the town’s elected Planning Commission. Also, the Charlestown Citizens Alliance has waged an election-year e-mail campaign critical of the plan, suggesting that the town’s wind ordinance caters to LeBlanc – a local developer who sold the town several acres for a new police station on Old Post Road.
The project site was once eyed for the proposed Ninigret Hamlet housing development, a 200-unit condo project that was scaled down to 125 units in 2005 – but never built. Anti-casino advocates later speculated that LeBlanc could sell the land to the Narragansett Indian Tribe for a coastal gaming resort, but tribal leaders have denied ever having such plans.
Both the Conservation Commission and the Economic Improvement Commission recently issued advisory opinions backing Whalerock’s plan, while a third board is holding off on any recommendation until after this week’s hearing; it’s possible that the Town Council could vote on the project Thursday night.
The Conservation Commission voted 3-0 two weeks ago to support the plan, noting that LeBlanc’s property doesn’t hold any historical trees or rare species. (Chairwoman Lillian Arnold recused herself from the vote because she lives within a 2-mile radius of the project site.)
“I think it’s going to come down to whether you want wind power or not,” said commission member Grace Klinger. “I think it’s a great benefit to this town, there’s no question about it.”
Two days later, members of the Economic Improvement Commission voted 4-0 to back the proposal. “I think it has a lot to give to Charlestown,” said EIC member Betty Combs.
The votes stand in contrast to a decision by the town’s Planning Commission to postpone an advisory opinion until after the public hearing. Members of the land use board publicly questioned the turbines’ impact on birds and bats and the visual effects of shadow flicker on Route 1 motorists, among other details.
Residents that live 200 feet from LeBlanc’s property have been notified of Thursday night’s hearing – including the tribe. An unfinished, 12-unit housing development for elderly tribal members sits close to the project site; the Narragansetts received $2 million from the federal government last summer to complete the project.
Whalerock’s privately financed, $10.5 million project qualifies for federal tax incentives designed to promote renewable energy. All of the power generated at the site would be sold to National Grid, and the town would receive a 2-percent annual royalty based on how much revenue is generated.
“Currently we’re negotiating a power purchase agreement with National Grid,” Carlino told members the Economic Improvement Commission two weeks ago. “The goal would be a 20-year contract. Until that agreement is reached, the economic specifics can’t be discussed in any great detail because it’s unknown.”
Carlino said he’s willing to lift a proposed $50,000 annual cap on town royalties, but acknowledged that Charlestown would likely see between $24,000 to $33,000 in payments each year. “If the revenue increases, the 2 percent will yield more for the town,” he said.
Nevertheless, a power purchase agreement that isn’t profitable for Whalerock will sink the project. “If the power purchase agreement doesn’t come through, then it’ll be dead in the water,” Carlino said.
Typically, when a landowner is approached by a company looking to site wind turbines, developers offer a 2- to 3-percent royalty as an incentive to lease their property, said project attorney Nicholas Gorham.
“We thought 2 percent to the town would be comparable,” he said. “It’s not the same relationship, but from the town’s perspective, you don’t have to give up any land.”
“It’s unprecedented what we’re doing, so we didn’t have a benchmark to compare it to,” Gorham added. “… There aren’t many businesses that come into your town and pay you money, in addition to taxes.”
While Carlino and LeBlanc expect to pay local property taxes, they could ask the town in the future for a tax stabilization agreement – which usually lowers taxes on land over the course of several years. But that scenario would only play out if National Grid’s purchase agreement comes in lower than expected.
“It may be that if the profit margin is slim, that we would ask in good faith to negotiate with the town for a tax stabilization [agreement],” Carlino said. “That would only happen if the deal with National Grid made the economics fairly tight.”
Any such agreement would have to be approved by town voters at a referendum.
“The only way a tax stabilization agreement can be approved is by the people of Charlestown,” Gorham said.
Once up and running, the turbines would produce a “whoosh-whoosh” sound as they spin. The monopole towers would be larger than those at Portsmouth Abbey and Portsmouth High School, but are newer and quieter models.
“There are actually two types of sound that are emitted from a wind turbine,” Carlino said. “The first is, you get the whoosh of the blades. Then there’s also the actual gears and the mechanics internal to it that creates another frequency sort of noise.”
“This is a newer model that is much quieter than the older machines that were produced,” he continued. “If we went with some of the older machines like they have in Portsmouth … given the site plan we have, noise would be a greater concern.”
But Carlino said a noise study by Applied Science Associates Inc., of South Kingstown, didn’t examine audible impacts on neighboring properties, or at homes across the highway on Old Post Road. The town’s wind ordinance only requires a noise assessment at LeBlanc’s property line, he said.
“At over 1,000 feet away, the noise dissipates. It’s a non-factor at that point,” Carlino said.
Joseph Dolock, a Town Council candidate who lives next to the project site on East Quail Run, expressed concern about noise from the turbines.
“We can hear the ocean on certain days, so noise does travel especially if we have a southern wind,” he said.
Carlino said the turbines’ impact on bats will not be known by Thursday’s hearing.
“I will concede there are issues to bats,” he said. “The birds, they’re going to avoid the turbines. The blades turn slow enough that, they’re not flying into it.”
“What happens to the bats, from everything I’ve read, they’re not going to hit the turbines but they’ll fly through. There’s like a vacuum created [by the blade spin] … and they explode. They die from that.”
Carlino said he plans to explore the possibility of mounting an after-market radio antenna on the towers to keep bats away.
“I’ll commit to whatever the best practice is technologically,” he said. “I don’t want to kill bats. I like bats. I hate mosquitoes. Bats eat 1,000 mosquitoes an hour.”
Members of the conservation and planning commissions have also expressed concerns about shadow flicker on Route 1 – an effect that occurs as the sun sets behind spinning blades. That could be mitigated by powering-down the turbines for a short time during the late afternoon, Carlino said.
“You’re only talking about 5 minutes where the sun starts to set where it would potentially be on the road,” he noted.
Thursday’s public hearing is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. at Charlestown Town Hall. Whalerock’s project application is available for public review on the town’s website, www.charlestownri.org.
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