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Portsmouth opts to replace broken wind turbine

PORTSMOUTH – Casting off the albatross around its neck for two years, the town has finally abandoned efforts to repair its fatally flawed wind turbine and has opted instead to replace it with a new one.

With a vote taken by the School Committee on Wednesday evening and a prior one by the Town Council on Oct. 27, officials have approved a tentative contract to put up a new turbine at Portsmouth High School.

The agreement with Wind Energy Development of North Kingstown would resolve what has weighed heavily on the town since the turbine was idled: the loan it has to repay. The town still owes $1.4 million, according to town planner Gary Crosby, and the deal requires the developer to pay it off all at once or in scheduled payments that could total up to $2 million over several years.

In exchange, the town will purchase electricity generated by the turbine for 25 years. The rate, a minimum of 15.5 cents per kilowatt hour, is comparable to what National Grid pays wind energy producers, but is substantially more than the 8.4 cents per kilowatt hour that the utility currently charges the town.

“This deal is not perfect,” said Crosby. “But we really have one of two options: one is to take it down and sell it as is and pay off the note with taxpayer funds or this deal…. It’s better than the alternative.”

Standing 364 feet tall and visible from many miles away, the turbine built in 2009 was at first symbolic of the hopes of the nascent renewable energy movement. For three years, it produced enough energy for about 280 households and generated $340,000 in net income from selling electricity to the power grid.

But in 2012, it began to falter, shutting down for weeks at a time. By May, it stopped working altogether. Suspicion fell on the gearbox. The town, however, was left in the lurch when it learned that the supplier, AAER, of Canada, which was new to the business, had gone bankrupt. Its warranty was voided.

Since then, the turbine has come to symbolize not the promise of alternative energy but the risks communities take when embracing renewables. Portsmouth is the only municipality in the state to own and operate a turbine.

To finance the project, the town took out a $2.6-million federal loan, which will be paid off by Wind Energy. Another note from the former state Economic Development Corporation, with a current balance of $250,000, must still be repaid by the town.

For a while, Portsmouth sought to find a partner willing to take on the repair of the 1.5-megawatt turbine, equal to the largest ones in the state. But the most recent effort was ditched when a company that had initially expressed interest in supplying a replacement gearbox and maintaining the turbine backed away from the deal, Crosby said.

At that point, said Crosby, the town resumed negotiations with Wind Energy Development, which had previously expressed interest in replacing the turbine with another 1.5-megawatt machine. A couple of years ago, the company erected a 1.5-megawatt turbine in a housing development in North Kingstown. Like the one proposed for Portsmouth, it is direct drive, meaning it has no gearbox.

Wind Energy says the new turbine will cost $6 million to build and will come with a 10-year manufacturer warranty and maintenance agreement. It says the manufacturer, Vensys/Goldwind, has worldwide experience and 24 years in the industry.

“The turbines that are currently in place in four other locations in Rhode Island are designed by Vensys and have been running efficiently for over two years,” the company stated in a news release.

The company has said it may try to salvage some of the parts from the original turbine.

Crosby said the contract gives the company two years to take down the original turbine and erect the new one. But he said that the owner, Mark DePasquale, “expects to get it done sooner.”

The School Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved the tentative agreement, acting on the recommendation of Supt. Ana Riley. The Town Council will meet Thursday night to once again review a letter of intent between the town and Wind Energy and to possibly vote on a preferred option for the $1.4-million payment.