JOHNSTON – The wind turbines appear up ahead as you drive west on Route 6, rising high on a hill over Johnston.
In a matter of weeks, Green Development, of North Kingstown, has installed six of the German-made behemoths that each stand 524 feet tall when their blade tips are at their highest point – higher than the Industrial Trust building in Providence.
With only one turbine left to go, the wind farm in a largely industrial area off Plainfield Pike and Shun Pike, not far from the Central Landfill, is expected to start feeding power into the regional electric grid by the end of the year.
When the $105-million project is completed, it will be the largest wind farm on land in Rhode Island, in terms of the amount of power it will be able to produce. Green Development’s wind farm in Coventry has more turbines – 10 on sites off Victory Highway – but each one has only half the power-generating capacity of the seven next-generation turbines going up in Johnston: 1.5 megawatts versus 3 megawatts.
That means the total nameplate capacity of the Johnston wind farm is 21 megawatts, compared with 15 megawatts for the Coventry project.
The only wind farm in Rhode Island that can generate more power than the Johnston array is Deepwater Wind’s five-turbine, 30-megawatt project in state waters off Block Island. Completed in 2016, it is the first, and so far only, offshore wind farm in the United States.
As he walked through the Johnston project on a recent morning, Mark DePasquale, founder and chairman of Green Development, pointed to a turbine whose rotor had just been lifted into place.
“That one will be done in about another hour,” he said.
In the last six years, North Kingstown-based Green Development, formerly known as Wind Energy Development, has become one of the biggest developers of renewable energy in Rhode Island.
The company started with a single wind turbine in North Kingstown in 2012 and has put up 11 more – the ones in Coventry, as well as one in place of the failed turbine at Portsmouth High School – and installed or proposed more than 100 megawatts of solar power in Richmond, Exeter, North Smithfield and elsewhere around the state.
Although its projects are helping to reduce energy costs for municipalities and other public entities, have won contracts through the state, and been embraced by people like Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, they have not been universally welcomed. Some residents of Coventry in particular have complained of shadow flicker and noise and objected to the visual impact of the 414-foot-tall turbines in a largely rural part of that community.
Green Development has also found itself in the midst of more than one Smith Hill controversy. Two years ago, a budget provision designed to help the company’s Coventry project by shifting some interconnection costs to ratepayers was shelved after a Journal story on it.
In the last General Assembly session, the company sought legislation that would have extended a key renewable-energy incentive to biomass – the burning of wood waste for power – to benefit a project in the works at the time in Johnston, but the measure was dropped in the face of opposition from environmental groups.
As recently as September, Green Development was still actively considering a biomass project in Johnston. In response to a request for proposals for renewable energy issued by the State of Rhode Island on Sept. 12, Green Development submitted a notice of intent to bid through a project called “GD Johnston Green Hill Biomass.” The notice included a project size of 40 megawatts, a construction date of September 2019 and an operation date of December 2021, but offered no other details.
The company, however, did not follow through with a formal bid, according to public documents. And for now, Green Development is not pursuing any biomass proposals and has decided against taking up the fight again for the amendment to the net metering legislation in the next legislative session this winter, said spokesman Bill Fischer.
“It’s not a priority right now,” he said. “Our focus is on wind and solar.”
The turbines being installed in Johnston were fabricated in Germany by manufacturer VENSYS and shipped to the Quonset Business Park in North Kingstown.
They are going up in pieces, five tubular tower sections that fit atop one another, then the nacelle 338 feet up that houses mechanicals, the generator on the front, and finally the rotor with its three blades. The 200-foot-long carbon-fiber blades are longer than those of the other turbines installed on land in Rhode Island, which allows them to capture more energy from the wind and convert it to more electricity.
Green Development is leasing land from private property owners in Johnston, including JR Vinagro Corp. and Rambone Disposal Services, paying them $54,000 annually for each turbine. The company will pay Johnston $140,000 a year as part of a tax deal and also agreed to make a one-time payment of $175,000 to set up a college scholarship fund.
Mayor Polisena said he hasn’t heard any complaints about the project so far, noting that the area isn’t residential, sits near the landfill and is already home to a host of industrial enterprises.
“It’s great for the town, great for the environment and, importantly, great for future generations,” he said of the wind farm.
Green Development has agreements in place with the Narragansett Bay Commission, the Rhode Island Convention Center Authority, the Town of Scituate and multiple housing authorities in the state, which will all buy power from the turbines to offset their electric bills. A portion of the wind farm’s output will also be sold directly to the power grid.
DePasquale said that Green Development is looking at other places to install more wind turbines, while also working on plans to revamp its offices in North Kingstown, adding a renewable-energy education center, a solar array and a battery-storage facility.
“Overall in Rhode Island, we’re putting out more energy than anybody else,” DePasquale said. “We’re looking to expand.”
The Johnston turbines have gone up quickly, and should be done next week, but DePasquale hoped to finish sooner. The very weather conditions that make the location suitable for the project have delayed some construction.
“We’ve been fighting a lot of wind,” DePasquale said.
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