PORTSMOUTH – The wind turbine at Portsmouth High School stands idle no longer.
Four years after its gearbox broke down and its blades stopped spinning, the turbine has been replaced with a new and better model that has gone into operation without any problems so far.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday morning for the 1.5-megawatt Vensys machine, Portsmouth town officials spoke about the importance of replacing the broken turbine – which at 364 feet tall could be seen from miles around – not only from a financial standpoint but also in symbolic terms.
Town Administrator Richard A. Rainer described the moment as a “rebirth.” Town Council president Keith E. Hamilton said it was a testament to perseverance.
“You can’t miss it. You come across the bridge, you see it. You drive down West Main Road, you see it,” Hamilton said. “It’s great to see it spinning again.”
Installed by the town in 2009, the original turbine was at first emblematic of the benefits of renewable energy to financially-strapped municipalities in Rhode Island. It steadily generated energy and produced $340,000 in net income from selling electricity to the power grid.
But after three years of relatively smooth operation, it started to falter, and then in May 2012 it stopped spinning altogether. It turned out that the gearbox had given out, a problem that had plagued similar models supplied by the startup company AAER. Compounding the situation, the Canadian company had gone out of business and the warranty on the turbine was voided.
Just like that, the turbine had morphed into a cautionary tale of the risks of a nascent renewables industry.
The intervening years have been difficult for the town with a raft of potential solutions explored and then dropped. But officials appear to have learned from the experience.
This time around, the town partnered with a private developer – Wind Energy Development, the North Kingstown company that installed a similar turbine at a housing development in North Kingstown several years ago and built a wind farm in Coventry this summer with nine identical turbines. The company owns and operates the new turbine in Portsmouth.
And unlike the old turbine, the new one is made by a proven manufacturer. Vensys, a German company, has installed some 12,000 turbines of the same model around the world.
“Vensys has an incredible track record of quality and safety,” said Hannah Morini, project developer with WED.
Moreover, the turbine is direct drive, meaning it doesn’t have a gearbox. With fewer moving parts, there are fewer things that can go wrong, said Morini. It’s also quieter. Neighbors have already remarked on the difference in noise, she said.
WED agreed to pay off all remaining debt on the old turbine and to cover the cost of removing it. In total, the company invested about $8 million in the Portsmouth project, said chief operating officer Michelle Carpenter.
The company will generate revenue by selling approximately three-quarters of the power back to Portsmouth, which will use it for municipal buildings, at a rate of 15.5 cents per kilowatt hour, about twice the rate charged by utility National Grid. The remaining quarter of the power is being sold to the Town of Coventry under the state’s “virtual net metering” law.
The faulty turbine came down in January and its replacement went up in June. The new turbine went through a series of tests before it started supplying power to the electric grid on Aug. 12, said Carpenter.
“Portsmouth has a great wind resource,” she said. “This turbine will produce a lot of power.”
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