There are more commercial-scale wind turbines on the Rhode Island horizon than ever before and offshore wind farms that could generate a substantial portion of the state’s energy remain on track.
But in many respects, the outlook for land-based wind power in the Ocean State has darkened recently, especially for municipal energy projects that had gathered momentum over the last five years.
In the depths of the recession, renewable energy in general and wind power in particular offered an attractive potential public finance and environmental-sustainability opportunity that cities and towns across the country jumped on.
Since then, in Rhode Island all but one windmill project involving a city or town government has either been abandoned or is in limbo.
And the one town-owned turbine that has been built, by Portsmouth adjacent to the high school, is now broken with the town recently postponing a decision on whether to spend money to fix it.
“I would say the last year or two the wind industry has taken a hit,” said Bristol renewable energy consultant Bob Chew.
In July, Westerly abandoned a public-private partnership with North Kingstown-based Wind Energy Development LLC to build two turbines on town land because of resident opposition.
In Jamestown, a five-year, $170,000 study of building a turbine at Taylor Point was abandoned last month over declining economic prospects and mounting concern over the risk and reward involved.
On the other side of the Claiborne Pell Bridge, the largest municipal wind-power project in the state – the 25-megawatt Tiverton wind farm proposed by the nine communities of the East Bay Energy Consortium – was halted this summer amid a series of political and legal concerns.
“This whole turbine discussion really consumed everything that we were doing and now we do want to look at [other renewable energy] projects,” said East Bay Energy Consortium Chairwoman and Newport City Councilor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano about the project, after Bristol pulled its representative from the group’s meetings last month.
Although they have become much more common here and across the country, wind turbines still draw significant opposition from residents concerned about aesthetics and safety in whatever town they are proposed.
This has led to moratoriums or bans on turbines in many communities, including Charlestown, Warwick and North Kingstown.
But for wind-power advocates, an even larger concern than the not-in-my-backyard problem is the perception that the economics of public wind power are heading in the wrong direction.
Federal stimulus for renewable energy development has slowed or stopped at the same time that increased domestic production of natural gas has brought the price of making electricity from fossil fuels down considerably.
“At the time we started this, you had energy prices going nowhere but up and you had the [proposed Weaver’s Cove] LNG project that no one wanted to see,” said Jamestown Town Council Chairman Michael Schnack about the abortive Taylor Point project. “Then you had the removal on limits on fracking, and dropping natural gas prices took some of the push out of the wind industry.”
Jamestown started its exploration of wind energy in 2005 with a $60,000 town appropriation for a feasibility study that was later supplemented by $111,775 from the state’s Renewable Energy Fund.
Despite uncertainty surrounding the project, town voters approved, by 14 votes, borrowing $6.5 million to buy and install the turbine.
Estimates suggested the 2-megawatt Jamestown turbine would satisfy all the municipality’s electricity needs and generate between $70,000 and $150,000 in cash flow per year (a $110,000 average.) If all went well, in 20 years the turbine was expected to pay the debt service and generate an additional $2 million, Schnack said.
But that didn’t account for something, like the failure of the gearbox in the Portsmouth turbine, going wrong.
Jamestown still needed an additional $44,000 from the Renewable Energy Fund to complete the information gathering, but decided not to apply for it, with Portsmouth and the turmoil at the R.I. Economic Development Corporation over 38 Studios LLC playing into the decision, Schnack said.
On the state level, investments in wind-power projects are made by the EDC-run Renewable Energy Fund, which is funded by a charge on electric bills and mandatory contributions from utilities.
Of the $11.3 million the fund has invested, mostly in grants, since being formed in 2008, $5.2 million has gone to state and private wind projects and $629,000 to local-government wind projects.
These projects include the $435,000 for the East Bay Energy Consortium and grants for municipal projects in Narragansett, North Kingstown, North Smithfield and Warwick that have not been built.
Many Rhode Island wind projects have also received federal awards.
While financial risk ultimately stopped the Jamestown project, the problems facing the East Bay Consortium wind farm have been tied to the political and practical challenges of trying to bring local government into the wind-farm business.
To pay for the $55 million project with tax-exempt bonds, the consortium sought elevated legal status that would have involved either becoming a subsidiary of the EDC or receiving eminent-domain power.
Neither option was popular and a series of hastily-revised EBEC bills died in the state House in June.
A year ago, legislation allowing proposed wind projects to sign long-term “distributed generation” contracts with utilities was supposed to accelerate the renewable market in Rhode Island, but since then only one wind project has signed such a contract.
Bristol Renewable Energy consultant Bob Chew, who is on a state renewable energy advisory board, said he is hoping the distributed-generation rules are “tweaked” to level the playing field for smaller projects that right now can’t compete with big wind farms.
Some government-related wind projects have gotten off the ground this summer. After more than a month delay, the quasi-public Narragansett Bay Commission, which runs Providence area water treatment, is poised to start running the three, 1.5-megawatt turbines at its Field’s Point Providence facility this month. A ribbon-cutting is scheduled for October.
But Chew said building renewable energy is always going to be easier in the private sector because “there is one decision-maker.”