GARDNER – Two 400-foot wind turbines tower over the employee parking lot and razor wire-topped fences that surround the sprawling state prison complex here on a hill near Route 2.
On this chilly late fall morning, a strong wind is blowing in the wildlife management sanctuary that abuts the North Central Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison with about 1,000 inmates.
Despite the wind, the graceful, white turbines and their long blades stand stock still, as they have since the turbines were installed nearly two years ago. Yet only a couple of miles away, two identical turbines that were also installed in March 2011, at Mount Wachusett Community College, are spinning vigorously, generating electric power.
While the prison turbines haven’t been working or producing any electricity or savings for the prison system, taxpayers and utility ratepayers have been paying for them.
Interest and principal payments on the bond that financed the bulk of the $10.7 million project are $731,437 a year at 3.5 percent interest, according to Alexandra Zaroulis, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Administration and Finance.
The bond was issued in 2008, but payments did not start until fiscal 2012, when a small first-year payment of $61,694 was made. All told, taxpayers have shelled out about $427,000 for the wind power so far, yet not one watt of electricity has been generated.
Critics liken the situation to making payments on a shiny new car that stays stuck in the garage.
“I’m against it when they spend $10 million and don’t use it for two years,” said Tom Pirro of Westminster, who runs a blog about bird watching and nature in northern Central Massachusetts and often hikes in the sanctuary next to the prison.
Unlike some critics who claim turbines cause negative effects such as bird kill, vibration and shadow flicker, caused by the turbines’ blades when the sun is low on the horizon, Mr. Pirro says he does not object to wind power because any harm is more than offset by lessening dependence on polluting power sources such as fossil fuels.
State officials acknowledge that the project has taken longer than anticipated. But they say such delays are common in complex construction projects, and that the unused turbines have been well-maintained and will retain their 20-year lifespan once they are turned on.
“It’s not that this project has an unusual arc. The timeline is not significantly different than other private or public projects,” said Andrew Brydges, senior director of renewable energy generation for the ratepayer-funded Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which contributed $1.2 million to the prison wind project.
“We certainly recognize that people have noticed” that the project is late, Mr. Brydges continued. “In the end, it will be a very profitable investment.”
The NCCI project will produce 3 megawatts of power and is projected to save the prison system about $500,000 a year via energy credits for NCCI and the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski prison on the Lancaster-Shirley line.
Along with the community college installation, it is one of the first exclusively publicly funded wind projects and is part of an ambitious plan by Gov. Deval L. Patrick’s administration to build dozens of wind turbines across the state. Some 115 turbines are already running and 90 others are being built, designed and studied for feasibility.
Meanwhile, a series of problems that have held up the prison turbine project finally shows signs of abating.
National Grid, which owns the electric system to which the turbines will connect, says there is hope the turbines will go online as soon as January. Full-scale testing is expected to start this week, said Charlotte McCormack, a National Grid spokeswoman.
National Grid and state officials, as well as the contractor, J.K. Scanlan Co. of East Falmouth, agree that the project has been particularly difficult in large part because of the early 20th-century prison buildings and antiquated electrical systems.
“There were complications and obstacles met on both sides of this project,” Ms. McCormack said.
For example, more than $700,000 went in to upgrading a National Grid substation in Gardner and stringing five miles of transmission lines to the substation. That work was finished in May, according to National Grid. State officials say no budget overruns were incurred by this work, but it extended the length of the project.
More recently, a $19,000 switch mechanism at the site was inhabited by a family of eight mice, which chewed through the wires’ insulation. The small, but critical, unit took weeks to replace and finally arrived last month.
Also, the same factors that make a prison a good candidate for wind power – principally its large power needs from staying open around the clock – made it difficult to work on, officials said. Namely, power couldn’t be easily shut off during construction for security reasons.
But there also has been plenty of finger-pointing between the state and the contractor on one side, and the electric company on the other.
“The big delay was National Grid,” said Greg Inman, J.K. Scanlan project manager for the prison wind project.
Mr. Inman maintained that J.K. Scanlan applied to the utility for an interconnection permit in 2010 that would allow the turbines to hook into the electric grid, but that utility kept asking for more paperwork that added time to the process.
National Grid officials said the utility couldn’t start construction on the substation until it had a signed agreement from the state and that National Grid didn’t get that until November 2011, even though the turbines had been erected in March 2010.
Meanwhile, the utility said it has been waiting for the contractor to finish other local wiring work.
“Our work has been done since May,” said Ms. McCormack, the utility spokeswoman.
Hope Davis, director of the office of facilities maintenance and management for the state Department of Capital Asset Management, asserted that National Grid “had known about the project since 2009.”
The two Gardner wind turbine installations were the first that the Cape Cod-based construction company had undertaken, though it has embarked on several more since being awarded the bid for the prison project in 2009. It has announced that wind power will be a major focus in the future.
State officials said experience with wind power was only one of the criteria involved in evaluating bids.
“Experience is very important, but not the most important,” Ms. Davis said. “Price is an important one.”
Other factors include contractors’ technical approaches, range of services offered such as design, commissioning (verifying that subsystems such as electrical wiring and security work according to the owner’s requirements) and training, Ms. Davis said.
Ms. Davis said J.K. Scanlan came out ahead of the other bidders when its bid was scored on a matrix that considered many variables and was reviewed by an interagency team of the administration. She also said the company fulfilled its contract to the full satisfaction of the state and did an excellent job erecting the turbines.
“We’re all aware that they did not have a lot of experience with wind turbines, but they have done complex construction projects across the state and elsewhere,” Ms. Davis said.
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