FALMOUTH – Underlying the town’s plan to run its two wind turbines for 16 hours a day is an assumption – a rather large one, the selectmen acknowledge – that the state will forgive nearly $6 million in loans and other funding used during their construction.
If the state doesn’t bring financial aid to the table, the town’s latest attempt to balance its finances, a desire for clean energy and the comfort of the turbines’ neighbors could unravel.
“We have no guarantees,” Town Manager Julian Suso said. “… If those cannot be confirmed, the whole process will have to be rethought.”
Since a ballot initiative in May to cover the cost of the turbines’ decommissioning failed, the selectmen have been working to find a new plan for their operation.
Falmouth is asking the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a government-funded entity that invests in nascent clean energy programs, to forgive $1 million it paid in advance for renewable energy certificates to fund construction. Renewable energy certificates, also called RECs, are bought by electricity providers to finance clean energy programs without directly supplying renewable energy.
Falmouth is also asking the center to drop an agreement to give them future certificates, which would allow the town to sell them to other electric companies.
Suso said the town is also in discussions with multiple state agencies to convert a $4.8 million interest-free construction loan into a grant that would not have to be repaid.
The two 1.65-megawatt turbines, known as Wind 1 and Wind 2, have generated more controversy than power since they went online in 2010 and 2011.
Neighbors of the turbines, located at the town’s wastewater treatment plant on Blacksmith Shop Road, have complained about noise and health issues, while proponents say the town must run them at all times to recoup the initial investment and provide a source of emission-free energy.
The 16-hour operation, which goes into effect Oct. 1, is an attempt to get the town to a break-even point on the turbines’ operation. The turbines currently run 12 hours a day, which isn’t generating enough revenue to cover their costs.
The selectmen were discussing running them between 20 and 24 hours a day, which would generate enough revenue to pay for mitigation options for nearby homeowners.
But after their Monday night meeting, at which they listened to two hours of testimony from town residents on all sides of the issue, they narrowly decided to eschew mitigation in favor of an eight-hour shutdown each day.
“To make money on these at this point in time is blood money,” said Selectman Kevin Murphy, who voted in favor of the 16-hour operation. “If the state comes back and says they won’t forgive the RECs, then shame on them. We’ll have to go back and do it again. But at this point in time, there are other ways.”
Suso said the town started the discussions with the state on its requests before the May ballot question to fund the turbines’ decommissioning and dismantling failed by a sizable margin.
The talks have continued since, but Suso said no meetings are scheduled to discuss the new plan for the turbines.
“The best I can say is (talks have been) cordial and informative and we’ve been awaiting some definitive action,” he said.
Clean Energy Center spokesman Matt Kakley confirmed the discussions are ongoing, but declined to provide details of what conditions might be placed on any offers of financial aid.
“We’ve been willing to discuss and renegotiate the REC contract for options like curtailment, but not for taking the turbines down,” he said. “That’s something that’s been on the table for quite some time.”
If the town doesn’t get the financial assistance it’s planning on, the 16-hour operation of the turbines would cost the town more than $4 million in the next 10 years to operate.
Even the three selectmen who voted in favor of the 16-hour operation – Murphy, Doug Jones and Chairman Brent Putnam – knew that would send them back to the drawing board.
“There is nothing final in life, with the exception of death,” Murphy said. “Things are always fluid. Things can always change. If there is new information that comes forward, change can, in fact, occur.”
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