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Renewable energy project moves into real-world phase

“We don’t have a lot of energy resources in Rhode Island.”

That nutshell assessment by facilitator Marion Gold capped the fourth stakeholder meeting of the Renewable Energy Siting Partnership Dec. 1. It also reminded the 60-plus attendees why the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources is investing months and money in extracting public input on alternative energy development.

The RESP gathering, held at the University of Rhode Island Narragansett Bay campus, was led by Gold, director of the URI Outreach Center, and Jennifer McCann, director of extension programs at the URI Sea Grant program. The Outreach Center and Sea Gant are managing the RESP project.

The most recent meeting featured presentations on measuring wind turbine noise and renewable energy project economics, topics much debated recently in North Kingstown before the town council prohibited wind turbines in town last month.

Town officials said they are waiting to see whether the RESP guidelines, expected early next year, give them reason to reopen the wind turbine issue locally.

At the Dec. 1 stakeholder meeting Gopu R. Potty, research professor of ocean engineering at URI, explained that separating wind turbine noise from ambient background noise presents a challenge in determining whether energy projects raise decibels to unacceptable levels.

In most countries with extensive wind turbine experience, he reported, the rules require turbines to be quieter in rural areas, where ambient noise is low, than in noisier urban areas. Regulations typically specify that turbines must produce less sound in the early evening and at night, when background noise fades.

Potty also went over research into whether certain types of fluctuating turbine noise, such as “blade swishing,” and generation of “pure” tones pose special risks to listeners.

His group is collecting sound data from sites around the state where wind turbines might be placed.

On the issue of “Renewable Energy Project Economics,” James J. Opaluch, URI Environmental and Natural Resource Economics department chair, told the group many tools from many sources exist to calculate the effects of renewable energy, including hydropower, on jobs, economic development and energy costs.

One, the Cost of Renewable Energy Spreadsheet from a U.S. Department of Energy research lab, for example, is an easy-to-use spreadsheet that users can download and update with local data to produce tailored projections.

Opaluch said the next step for his group will be to validate the models and actual results against conditions in Rhode Island.

In the question period several audience members said that step – learning what actually happens when an alternative energy project begins operation – interested them more than theoretical models.

RESP leaders urged people to go online for a free public webinar on that subject at 2 p.m. Wed., Dec. 7, “Wind Power as a Neighbor: Experience with Techniques for Mitigating Public Impacts.” The webinar features the real-world experiences of residents in Sheldon, NY, with a local wind project.

After three months of identifying issues, the RESP project is moving into Phase 2, information synthesis and communication. Research is scheduled to be complete by the end of March 2012.

Upcoming RESP events include a Jan. 24 lecture at 6 p.m. at the North Kingstown Free Library, “What’s in the Wind? Meteorological Observations for Energy Siting.” RESP has scheduled other public meetings at libraries around the state to gather input from as many residents as possible.

The next stakeholders meeting will be Jan. 12 at the URI Narragansett Campus. To register for future meetings, or to get more information, contact project managers Teresa Crean, tcrean@crc.uri.edu, 874-6626, or Danny Musher, dannymusher@uri.edu, 874-5705.