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Over criticism from taxpayers, Portsmouth Town Council votes for plan to repair failed wind turbine

PORTSMOUTH – The wind turbine at Portsmouth High School sits idle, a stark reminder of the failure of what a consultant to the town once described as “a brave experiment.”

The 1.5-megawatt machine – equal to the largest wind turbines in Rhode Island and the only one in the state owned and operated by a municipality – stopped spinning two years ago after its gearbox broke down.

Now, after several attempts to bring in a private company to take over the faulty windmill went nowhere, the town has taken the first step to try to get it back up and running.

On Tuesday, after a presentation from a team of consultants and amid withering criticism from some residents, the Town Council voted, 4 to 2, to move forward with a preliminary plan to repair the turbine at an estimated cost of $885,000.

Council President James Seveney told the crowd of about 50 people gathered in Town Hall that it was a better choice than the only other option: tearing down the $3-million turbine and somehow paying back the $2.1 million in loans that are still outstanding.

“Rather than just cut our losses … I believe we should proceed forward,” he said. “I believe it can work.”

It’s not just the town that has a stake in the windmill. The idle turbine is a black eye for Rhode Island’s wind-power industry, which has stalled in recent years, and for state government, which has worked hard to develop local sources of renewable energy.

Officials from the state Commerce Corporation and the state Office of Energy Resources, agencies that backed the installation of the turbine five years ago, were at Tuesday’s public hearing to demonstrate their continued support for the troubled project.

“We are looking at ways to address this issue and help the town,” said Chris Kearns, chief of program development of the energy office.

And a representative of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin was there, to present a grant of $250,000 to help offset the cost of repairs. The money will come from Rhode Island’s share of the settlement from a federal Clean Air Act lawsuit against the owner of power plants that contributed to air pollution in the Northeast.

“The Town of Portsmouth was one of the first municipalities in Rhode Island to advance the state’s objective of promoting renewable energy,” Kilmartin said in a statement. “It is, therefore, in the state’s interest to support these efforts.”

At 364 feet tall, the turbine can be seen from miles away. When it went up in March 2009, it was a point of pride for the town. That perception has changed, though, residents said at the meeting.

“It’s an embarrassment,” said Tom Casselman. “It’s a laughingstock for our town and our state. It should be taken down.”

Portsmouth was seen as a renewable-power pioneer when it put up the turbine after voters approved the project in a town-wide referendum. The project was financed with a $400,000 loan from the state Commerce Corporation, formerly the Economic Development Corporation, and a $2.6-million federal Clean Renewable Energy Bond.

Soon, other communities – Westerly, Jamestown and a group of East Bay towns – were considering following suit, but they all eventually dropped their plans, in part, for some of those municipalities, because of the problems the Portsmouth windmill started to experience.

For three years, the turbine hummed along, producing enough energy for about 280 households and generating $348,000 in net income from selling electricity to the power grid. But in February 2012, it started to falter, shutting down for weeks at a time, and that May it stopped working altogether.

Experts hired by the town blamed the gearbox, but subsequent studies have discovered a host of other issues.

At the top of the list was the choice of supplier, AAER, a Canada-based company that submitted the lowest bid on the project. The company was a neophyte in the wind business and went bankrupt a year after the Portsmouth turbine was installed. As a result, the warranty on the turbine was voided.

Five other turbines of the same model were installed in the United States, three in California and two in Massachusetts. One of the turbines in Massachusetts also suffered a gearbox failure and at least one other has had its gearbox repaired.

In Portsmouth, questions have also been raised about the suitability of the location of the turbine, why detailed wind studies were not done before it was put up, whether it was installed properly and whether it was operated in the correct manner.

“We’ll not make the same mistakes we made in the past,” Seveney said.

The plan is to replace the gearbox with a new one that would have a six-year warranty. The turbine would be downgraded, meaning it would no longer operate in higher wind speeds, when greater stress is put on the gearbox. That should prolong its life, as should better monitoring of its performance by a private contractor, said Paul Raducha, of Newport Renewables, who is advising the town.

Although the town would have to pay up front to repair the turbine, the hope is that revenue from generating power will pay off the bill and the original loans within nine years. After that, the town would start making money again.

“These turbines have been operated prudently,” Raducha said. “They can be profitable.”

But some members of the council were not convinced. Elizabeth Pedro recounted a meeting two years ago with engineer Don Roberts, another adviser to the town, and said that was when he used the “brave experiment” line.

“It’s my opinion today that we shouldn’t be doing any more experimenting with taxpayer money,” Pedro said.

It’s by no means certain that the town will follow through and repair the turbine. There are questions about costs and contracts that still need to be answered. And there are still risks associated with the project.

“These turbines are a lot more complex than they look,” said Seth Handy, a lawyer working for the town who specializes in renewable-energy issues. “Portsmouth has learned that the hard way.”

BY THE NUMBERS: The Portsmouth wind turbine

3 years, 3 months: Length of time the turbine was in operation

$348,000: Net income for the town while the turbine was in operation

2 years: Length of time the turbine has stood idle

$2.1 million: Cost to take down the turbine and repay loans

$885,000: Cost to repair the turbine

9 years: Length of time it would take to break even if the turbine is repaired