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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Answering the critics

By TIM FAULKNER/ News staff
PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Renewable Energy Coordinating Board recently expressed its commitment to wind energy despite recent setbacks for wind projects across the state.
Marion Gold, a board director and recently hired administrator for the Office of Energy Resources, reaffirmed her support for renewable energy projects at the committee’s Aug. 29 meeting. She touted the new state and federal agency database, which she helped create during her previous job at the University of Rhode Island, to serve as a “global knowledge center” for wind, solar, hydropower and energy-efficiency programs.

Several new guidelines and services for wind turbines are being finalized just as wind energy is facing growing opposition across the state. Jamestown and Westerly ceased wind turbine projects after spending years and tens of thousands of dollars on proposals that indicated economic viability.
Proponents of the projects say the proposals were defeated by the implosion of the state Economic Development Corporation (EDC) at the hands of the 38 Studios debacle. The EDC, through its renewable energy fund, spent $140,000 on the Jamestown turbine proposal.
The shutdown of the Portsmouth High School turbine, which faces estimated repair costs of at least $400,000, also factored into the termination of the Jamestown project, according to Jamestown Town Council Vice President Robert Bowen. The Town Council, he said, was “getting a lot of flack that this is too risky for the town.”
Not all of the opposition has been aimed at municipal wind projects, however. The five-turbine, 30-megawatt Deepwater Wind project off Block Island has been hit with a recent complaint from longtime wind energy antagonist Benjamin Riggs Jr. The Newport resident, a former manufacturing executive, said the deal between Deepwater and National Grid is a violation of the Commerce Clause, which is part of the Constitution. Riggs also opposes the project over higher costs for electricity users.
“When people realize that this isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, they begin to ask, ‘Do (we) really want this in our backyard and in our oceans?'" Riggs said.
Riggs also is planning to join forces with an unnamed group in Bristol to challenge the East Bay Energy Consortium, a committee of nine cities and towns aiming to collectively reduce municipal energy costs. Its current project, a proposed 5- to 10-turbine wind farm in Tiverton, drew opposition from small but vocal groups, such as Ocean State Tea Party in Action, which is opposed to publicly funded wind turbines.
Yet, Gold said economic development is the “No. 1 objective” for the Renewable Energy Coordinating Board and its many partner organizations. The board faces the challenge of parsing 23 state statutes related to renewable energy then offering recommendations to the General Assembly on how they can work together.
New incentives need to be in place, Gold said, much like those in Connecticut and Massachusetts to help advance non-utility renewable energy projects. Rhode Island dropped its tax credit two years ago, but offers a series of other tax breaks, loans and grants for wind, solar and hydro projections. In 2011, the state adopted its landmark distributed generation standards legislation that offered reliable pricing for new renewable energy production.
Solar expert and green building designer Bob Chew, an advisory member of the Renewable Energy Coordinating Board, questioned previous economic promises for the "green" economy. He cited the lack of new jobs and business promised by those advocating for larger wind projects. He said former Gov. Donald Carcieri, who backed Deepwater Wind and promoted a yet-to-be-realized green infrastructure sector at the Quonset Point Industrial Park, deserves much of the blame for the state of Rhode Island's environmental sector.
“He was just as wrong with 38 Studios and with offshore wind when it comes to job creation,” Chew said.
Chew favors incentives for smaller residential and commercial wind and solar installers and developers, rather than pushing for singular big proposals that become easy targets for opponents. “When you blow $100 million on one project there’s not the climate to fund the other startups,” he said.
Janet Coit, director of the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and a principal member of the Renewable Energy Coordinating Board, said opposition to wind turbines has caused her to “watch, wonder and worry that we’re sending a signal we don’t want to send.”
The DEM met little resistance to a 155-foot-high turbine it installed at Fishermen’s Memorial State Park in Narragansett and other renewable projects at state parks, Coit said. “Wind turbines can be fitting in a coastal setting and something to be proud of," she said.
Excessive caution about local renewable energy projects, she said, stand in the way of meeting the overall goals of reducing energy consumption and cutting carbon emissions.
As Gold gets started as the state’s top energy planner — her appointment still needs approval from the Senate — many of the state’s agencies and energy organizations will develop a cohesive and comprehensive renewable energy plan with input from all energy sectors. But with the current victories by opponents of wind power, Gold said, “I think it’s time for a thoughtful pause.”
Natural gas and other fossil fuels will be fixtures in the state’s energy mix, but creating reliable, secure environmentally sound energy is still possible, she said.