BRISTOL – A Bristol resident is demanding that the group spending public money in pursuit of a public wind farm, stop spending that money – at least for now.
Peter Hewitt asked the Bristol Town Council to restrict the East Bay Energy Consortium’s (EBEC) ability to spend more money on an alternative energy project that may never come to fruition. The group has already spent $323,000 and has another $177,000 in the bank.
Since nine communities formed the consortium in 2009, the group has received “in excess of $500,000” in grant funding, said Bristol town treasurer Julie Gaucher.
Of that, the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, through the state’s Renewable Energy Fund, has put forward $435,000. The Rhode Island Foundation has provided $55,000, and each of the nine municipalities agreed to put up $2,000. The balance has come from other sources. So far, $323,000 has been spent.
“I think it’s time to kind of put the brakes on,” said Mr. Hewitt, regardless of where the money’s coming from.
Phases one and two involved site selection and the installation of a tower designed to measure the strength and duration of the wind as part of a feasibility study of the selected site in Tiverton. The year-long study will conclude in August, however no preliminary wind data has been reported to any of the towns.
“I would love to know what the results are of the feasibility study, and I certainly think the town council ought to know what the results of the feasibility study are,” said Mr. Hewitt.
Councilor Halsey Herreshoff agreed.
“I would think that since surveying has been done with public funds, the results should be made public,” Mr. Herreshoff said. “Is that going to happen?”
Town Administrator Diane Mederos gave her assurance that the data would be presented once the study is complete.
Council Chairman Kenneth Marshall defended the council – and the consortium’s – decision to move forward in pursuit of alternative energy sources that would benefit ratepayers and municipalities.
“Do you have a better idea?” he asked Mr. Hewitt.
While Mr. Hewitt had no solution, his point was to proceed with caution.
“My criticism of EBEC is based on the merits of the program itself, not on the merits of the volunteers from the towns appointed by the town councils to debate the issue,” he said.
If allowed to move forward with phase three, the consortium could spend up to $895,000 to develop a business model and plan. That could serve two purposes. First, it would help voters decide whether they want to move forward using a public agency to generate and distribute electricity, with any profits shared among the representative municipalities. Secondly, if voters reject that idea, a viable business plan could attract private companies to undertake the project with one or all municipalities reaping a smaller benefit.
The consortium was formed in an effort to create an economy of scale by creating a wind farm, rather than see many private wind turbines constructed throughout the East Bay. However, the consortium still lacks legal status. Before the General Assembly recessed for the summer, the House of Representatives sent a bill that would make EBEC a legal entity into the finance committee for further study.
Mr. Hewitt suggested a safeguard to unnecessary spending until the fate of EBEC is determined.
“Why don’t you ladies and gentlemen put a cease and desist on EBEC proceeding any further with this whole issue, spending money where we don’t even know how feasible the project is, how profitable the project is,” Mr. Hewitt said.
The funds are held by the Town of Bristol as the fiduciary, not in a general fund, but in a restricted fund specifically for the consortium. In 2009, when the nine cities and towns formed the consortium, Bristol agreed to be the lead municipality in the memorandum of agreement.
“It seems to me we have an open-ended non-entity that has the green light to spend an awful lot of money, and you don’t know, and you’re not really monitoring, nor are the other town councils, what that money’s being spent on,” Mr. Hewitt said.
In a phone conversation after the meeting, Mr. Marshall further expressed his opinion that the consortium and the exploration of other alternative energy options are being quelled by fear, rather than fact.
“How are you supposed to move forward if you’re not trying,” he said of keeping the consortium at a standstill. “There’s a fear out there that we shouldn’t do anything. We can’t become complacent.”
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