A renewable energy plan that state officials and environmentalists believe could be a model for the rest of Rhode Island is quietly moving forward in the East Bay.
Nine communities in the region have banded together to form the East Bay Energy Consortium, a group that proposes building a land-based wind farm that would provide enough clean, renewable power for as many as 7,500 homes.
A consultant hired by the cities and towns – Barrington, Bristol, East Providence, Little Compton, Middletown, Newport, Portsmouth, Tiverton and Warren – has tentatively selected land in and around the Tiverton Industrial Park, near Route 24 and the Fall River town line, as the best site for what’s envisioned to be a 25-megawatt project that could have 8 to 10 wind turbines and cost between $50 million and $63 million to complete.
The project is singular because of its proposed size. Rhode Island currently does not have any installations of more than a single turbine and no other private or public entity has put forward a plan for a wind farm on land of more than three towers.
It also stands out because of the sheer number of partners and their shared goal. The consortium would essentially become a renewable energy developer by putting up wind turbines that would feed electricity into the power grid that supplies Rhode Island and the rest of New England. The group would sell power at market rates, and the member communities would then share revenues to help cover their municipal budgets. Initial estimates for total benefits to the consortium over 20 years range from $23 million to $39 million.
“I can’t think of a time when nine communities in Rhode Island have gotten together and collaborated like this,” said Keith Stokes, executive director of the state Economic Development Corporation, which is helping to finance the plan. “It’s pretty exciting to see this type of eclectic mix of towns working together to achieve their renewable energy goals.”
“At least in theory this would be a good approach to minimize environmental impacts, streamline permitting, optimize public input and put a decent project in the right spot,” said Tricia Jedele, Rhode Island director of the Conservation Law Foundation. “The towns deserve a huge amount of credit for thinking out of the box that way.”
The concept for the wind farm was hatched early last year during a leadership conference at Roger Williams University in which East Bay officials discussed ways they could collaborate to save taxpayer money. One idea presented at the event was to jointly explore green energy options.
It immediately made sense, recalled Newport Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, chairwoman of the consortium. All the East Bay communities, with their abundant coastal winds, were already individually considering investing in wind turbines. And the previous summer, cities and towns were struggling with energy costs that had reached record highs.
Also, by then, the first wind turbine in the state had already been in operation in Portsmouth for three years. The turbine, at Portsmouth Abbey was installed in 2006, and its success in offsetting the parochial school’s energy costs had been widely reported. A second wind turbine in town, at Portsmouth High School, was getting ready to go on line at the time. (It has since performed better than expected.)
Soon after the conference, in March 2009, the nine cities and towns signed an agreement to work together. An amendment to state energy laws followed a few months later that removed restrictions on “net metering,” a mechanism that allows green-energy producers to sell power to the electric grid. The change in effect sweetened the prospect of developing wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy in Rhode Island, according to its supporters.
The consortium has been boosted by grants of $100,000 and $40,000 from the Rhode Island Renewable Energy Fund and the Rhode Island Foundation, respectively, which paid for a feasibility study. The main goal of the study by consultants from the South Kingstown-based Appliance Science Associates (ASA) was to determine a possible location for the project.
The Renewable Energy Fund, which is managed by the state Economic Development Corporation, awarded another $335,000 grant last month that will pay for a meteorological tower to collect wind data and will also go toward more detailed studies of permitting issues, governing structures for the consortium and financing options, including the availability of state and federal funds.
The success of the turbines in Portsmouth has led to proposals around the state, but not all have been welcomed. In Charlestown, residents formed a group in opposition to a wind power proposal earlier this year. On Block Island, townspeople have raised objections to a plan to build a single turbine at the municipal transfer station. And last year, the concerns of several environmental groups about a state proposal – that has since been dropped – to put up a turbine on protected open space in Narragansett drew much publicity.
“A lot of communities are having problems with this because nobody wants one in their backyard,” said Napolitano. “We’re all fighting the same thing.”
Although the state has been a strong backer of wind power in recent years, individuals, including EDC director Stokes, have expressed reservations about single turbines popping up here and there throughout Rhode Island, especially in coastal areas with relatively pristine view corridors.
“I don’t think our overall policy goal was to have one of these in every school parking lot all over the state,” said Stokes.
The East Bay Energy Consortium seeks to minimize any conflicts by concentrating on one site rather than several. The plan streamlines permitting by having to go through only one set of municipal zoning rules.
And it would realize economies of scale by sharing fixed costs that are a reality whether one turbine is installed or several. Rhode Island law currently allows municipalities to develop a maximum of 3.5 megawatts of renewable energy each. With nine member communities, the East Bay group can develop as much as 31.5 megawatts of clean power.
“Building nine in one location is a lot cheaper than building nine in nine locations,” said Gary Plunkett, Tiverton’s representative on the consortium.
He and other members of the group also say it’s easier to develop wind power in suburban Tiverton than in more heavily developed cities such as Newport or East Providence.
ASA selected a location for the wind farm that’s some distance from residential neighborhoods and businesses. The Tiverton Industrial Park is an industrial park largely in name only. It has only one other tenant, a natural-gas-fired power plant. That’s a plus for the wind farm. There are access roads in the area already and because of the power plant, an electrical substation that the wind farm could tie into is less than a mile away, said ASA principal Daniel Mendelsohn.
And, he said, because the industrial park sits on a rise, the winds there are very good.
“All those little pieces add up,” he said.
A plan currently being drawn up by the Newport County Chamber of Commerce for further development of the park will take into account turbine locations. Future tenants could get their power directly from the wind farm.
Going forward, other collaboratives, including a group in South County and another in northern Rhode Island that’s working with the Conservation Law Foundation, are considering following the East Bay consortium’s lead in developing large green-power projects together.
The EDC is also preparing to hire a consultant to look at other potential land-based sites in the state for utility-scale renewable energy, in an effort that aims to mirror an ocean planning effort that has been in the works for several years and will determine areas for offshore wind farms.
Meanwhile, Napolitano said she is hearing from a lot of people offering support to the East Bay consortium and others who have called with a single question.
“I’ve had other communities asking if they can get in,” she said.
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