Don’t use the F-word – “feasibility.” That was the thrust of a Monday meeting between the Electric Utility Task Group and Washington Regional Planning Council Executive Director Jeff Broadhead at which they discussed how to utilize $750,000 in federal stimulus money for a land-based wind turbine on Block Island.
“Ken Payne [of the state Office of Energy Resources] said he would do whatever he could to make this happen,” Broadhead said. “But he is not interested in funding feasibility work; [the Office of Energy Resources] want real things to happen that result in kilowatt-hours and jobs.”
According to Broadhead, Payne would prefer to separate the project’s “soft costs”— site planning, engineering and environmental impact studies – from the “hard costs” of actually constructing the turbine. This would lead to what Broadhead characterized as a “fatal flaw analysis,” which would protect the town if an insurmountable obstacle to the project were found.
Task group Chair Barbara MacMullan agreed that the town already knew a turbine would be feasible and it was now a planning and engineering problem.
“I think we are past the level of ‘does this make economic sense?’” MacMullan said. “Where we are now is more on the level of ‘how do we make this work?’”
A primary obstacle is the claustrophobically tight timeframe that calls on all projects utilizing the stimulus funds to be underway by the end of March 2012.
To meet that deadline the town would have to accomplish a number of tasks, including choosing a turbine site, which could require yet another zoning change like the recent one at the transfer station, a process that took months and frayed nerves. It would also require a number of engineering and environmental studies, review by the FAA, identifying a turbine and a company to install it, financing the project or signing a contract with a third party developer and approval by the voters at a Financial Town Meeting.
“I don’t want to be a wet blanket,” said MacMullan, “but getting a turbine underway by March of 2012 is a daunting task.”
Broadhead agreed that the timeframe was a problem but said that he saw “nothing that would keep you from making the March deadline.” He suggested moving forward by taking multiple steps concurrently.
“If you proceed with the work linearly it will take longer than a year to complete,” Broadhead said. “In order to make this work some things will have to happen at the same time.”
First Warden Kim Gaffett, who attended the meeting, identified choosing an appropriate site as a sticking point. She referenced the protracted process to rezone the transfer station and said that whatever site was chosen the town would likely be challenged in court.
At a Town Council work session Wednesday, Block Island Power Company Chief Operating Officer Cliff McGinnes Sr., speaking as a private citizen, said he thought the power company was the only logical site to install a turbine. He ennumerated the benefits of the site, including easy connection to the power grid, and the likelihood that it would receive less community opposition than most any other island site.
“[The town] is whistling Dixie if you think you can [construct a turbine] anywhere other than BIPCo,” McGinnes said. “The wind may not be as great as other sites, but there is wind. That’s why NASA put its turbine there.”
However, at the EUTG meeting Broadhead said the town first had to make a fundamental decision: is a municipally owned turbine a goal and did it want to pursue the grant funding.
“New Shoreham has an annual electricity bill of around $350,000 between the town and school, which could be reduced in part [with a turbine] and replaced in part by debt,” Broadhead said. “Is Block Island in a position where it can afford to lose $750,000 in funding for a project of this kind?”
The task group decided to move forward in what capacity it could to help the project progress. Task group member Everett Shorey volunteered to rework language in the group’s proposed development study to better fit the grant timeline. That proposal will have to be submitted as a Request for Qualifications in the next several weeks.
Likewise, MacMullan will work with Broadhead to develop a general timeline for the project over the next year. The task group will meet again Friday February, 18, at its regular monthly meeting to discuss both items. It will also try to come up with a tentative budget for the development study.
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