West Warwick is on the path to becoming the first community in Rhode Island that uses renewable energy to offset all of the electricity used by its municipal and school facilities.
Town voters at an all-day referendum on Thursday approved issuing $18 million in bonds to pay for three large wind turbines that would be installed on private land in rural Coventry. The 1.5-megawatt turbines would sell all the energy they generate to the regional power grid, an amount projected to be greater than the total used by the West Warwick Town Hall, the town’s police and fire stations, the library, schools, transfer station and local sewage treatment plant.
And, at between 6 and 8 cents a kilowatt hour, the power from the turbines would cost less than what the town is currently paying for electricity supplied by National Grid, Rhode Island’s dominant electric utility.
If electric rates increase at about 4.5 percent annually – a conservative estimate considering seasonal spikes in the last few years – over the 25-year life of the turbines, West Warwick would save an estimated $44 million in power costs, according to Clean Economy Development, a Rhode Island-based consulting firm.
That, says Town Manager Fred Presley, is particularly good news for a community that has experienced deep financial struggles in recent years and is only now starting to regain its footing.
“One of the reasons we did this is to protect our budget and project what our electric costs would be,” Presley said.
With electric rates in Rhode Island and the rest of New England fluctuating wildly from summer to winter as demand for natural gas spikes, it has become difficult to build estimates of electric costs into the town’s budget.
With a total power bill that on average ranges from $1.2 to $1.5 million a year, a hefty rate increase like the one that went into effect in January can add hundreds of thousands of dollars to what the town must pay.
“The wind turbines will make West Warwick’s energy costs stable over the long-term – unlike traditional power that places an unpredictable burden on taxpayers,” Michelle Carpenter, chief operating officer of Wind Energy Development, said in a statement.
The town’s plan to invest in renewable energy was formed last year when it released a request for proposals from developers with two simple questions: Could the town supply all of its electricity from renewable sources? And, could it do so at a lower price than what it pays for power from conventional sources?
Only one company, Wind Energy Development, of North Kingstown, responded by the deadline – another submitted a proposal afterward that was not considered – and the answer it provided was yes on both questions, even after debt service and maintenance were factored in.
The company, which has a 1.5-megawatt turbine up and running at a housing development in North Kingstown, has been working on proposals to install several groups of turbines in Coventry, a town that isn’t as densely populated as West Warwick or other communities in the state. Presley said Wind Energy Development currently has plans for 11 turbines in Coventry.
The three that West Warwick will purchase will be located on two parcels in western Coventry near Piggy Lane and Perry Hill Road. The town will sign 25-year leases for the land with options to renew depending on how the turbines hold up.
The last – and, until now, only – time a municipality in Rhode Island invested in wind power, it didn’t go so well. In 2009, Portsmouth installed a 1.5-megawatt wind turbine at its high school. After three years of generating power, it started experiencing problems and eventually stopped spinning altogether in May 2012. It has sat idle ever since.
Presley said West Warwick has done everything it could to protect itself from a similar situation. While Portsmouth chose an inexperienced Canadian manufacturer for its turbine, West Warwick is going with Vensys Energy, which, said Presley, has installed 13,000 turbines worldwide of the same model that will go up in Coventry.
The Portsmouth turbine’s problems originated with its gearbox. The Vensys model is direct drive, meaning it does not have a gearbox. It is the same design as the turbine in North Kingstown, but while that one was manufactured in China by Goldwind, the three West Warwick is buying will be made in Germany.
Vensys has also agreed to provide a 10-year warranty on the turbines and there could be options to extend it. The 10-year mark is important because that’s when the town could break even on the costs of the project, Presley said.
Under the agreement with Wind Energy Development, if the turbines break down, the town will be compensated for any lost power.
Although the Portsmouth turbine offers a cautionary tale, other wind turbines in Rhode Island have operated smoothly. They include the first turbine installed in the state – a 660-kilowatt machine put up in 2006 at the private school Portsmouth Abbey – and the three 1.5-megawatt turbines at the Narragansett Bay Commission on the Providence waterfront.
Following the vote on Thursday, which was overwhelmingly in favor of the wind project, the town now plans to sign a purchase and sales agreement with Wind Energy Development in the next month. If all goes as planned, the three wind turbines could start spinning by this time next year.
“This is a major step forward for the town,” Presley said.
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