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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Solution for busted wind turbine?

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI.org News staff
PORTSMOUTH — The town is scheduled to hold a public hearing Oct. 23 to consider options for its broken wind turbine. An eventual decision by the Town Council is expected to influence the direction of wind-energy projects in Rhode Island.




The 336-foot-high Portsmouth High School turbine has been idle since June 15 because of a broken gearbox. The designer of the turbine is no longer in business, invalidating the warranty. The estimated cost to buy and install a replacement gearbox is $760,000.
Acting town planner Gary Crosby said Portsmouth has two other options. Take down the turbine, sell the material for scrap and “figure out” how to pay off the balance of the bonds that funded the $3 million project, or turn over a portion of the ownership to a private wind-energy company.
The town is expected to release details of the options Oct. 16. It seems likely that town officials along with a hired consultant will recommend the public-private option to the Town Council. So far, the town has received “some credible offers” from groups interested in joint ownership, Crosby said.
Town Administrator John Klimm said during a “Portsmouth This Week” video that finances will likely determine the fate of the turbine. “We have a course of action to recommend to the council that makes sense; that will put us back on track and will stand the test of time," he said.
Klimm said taking down the turbine is not a “thoughtful option.” The problem and solution is more complicated. “I just ask that for those who are interested to have patience and to see just how complex an issue this is,” he said.
Since it was erected in 2009, the 1.5-megawatt turbine has delivered some $400,000 to the town. The revenue is net of maintenance and debt service. That money has gone to the School Department and the town's general fund.
Wind-energy opponents have used Portsmouth’s turbine breakdown as ammunition to help defeat similar public wind-turbine proposals in Westerly, Jamestown and Middletown.
Last year, the turbine also prompted a complaint over its electricity purchase agreement with National Grid. When running, the turbine delivers electricity directly to the power grid. National Grid pays the town the same rate it charges retail customers to buy electricity. Typically, the sale to National Grid offsets electric usage, a process called "net metering." But, due to the timing of the project and connection issues, the town was allowed to receive the gross payment for the electricity it generates.
In October 2011, the state Division of Public Utility and Carriers ruled that Portsmouth didn't receive an excessive rate for the electricity it sells to National Grid.
Electricity rates have dropped dramatically in recent months. Portsmouth therefore might also need to alter the way it sells its electricity to continue to make money and pay for its repairs.
“We made a decision from the very beginning that we are going to do this right, not quickly,” Klimm said.
The Oct. 23 workshop starts at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.