2010-02-11 / Front Page

Wind panel backs twin turbines

By Phil Zahodiakin

The Wind Energy Committee voted unanimously Tuesday night to recommend a pair of 1.65-megawatt wind turbines for Jamestown: One at Ft. Getty and another at Taylor Point.

The Feb. 9 vote, which changes the committee’s previous recommendation, came a week after the Town Council asked the committee to double-check its profit forecasts for various turbine scenarios at one or both locations.

On Nov. 17, the committee recommended a single, 2.0- megawatt turbine at Ft. Getty. But a change in the state’s netmetering law, which regulates the sale of electricity from townowned turbines, has led the committee to support a pair of 1.65- megawatt turbines instead.

The amendments to that law allow towns to sell as many as 3.5 megawatts of electricity at a nearly retail rate. Previously, the committee had assumed that the rate was closer to the prevailing wholesale price.

During its Feb. 1 presentation to the council, the committee presented updated profit forecasts based on a retail price. However, there were questions about the forecasts because it wasn’t clear if they included the electricity bills paid by the town.

The committee has confirmed that the forecasts don’t include the cost of electricity bills – but they do include the cost of debt service. So, the forecasts remain economically favorable to the town.

That’s because the amendments to the net-metering law eliminated the requirement for towns to “zero out” their own electricity bills before selling what was previously termed “excess” electricity. Consequently, R.I. towns are free to start selling electricity the moment their turbines start spinning.

That means the town would immediately have a new revenue stream, and the revenue could be used for any purpose – whether it’s paying electricity bills or, as Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said, “reducing tax bills or debt service.”

To be sure that the updated forecasts presented to the council are accurate, the economist who calculated the original predictions will review them in time for the Town Council’s Feb. 16 meeting.

One of the updated forecasts, for example, predicts that a pair of 1.65-megawatt turbines will turn a net profit of $6.4 million over 20 years. The forecast for the $10 million, twin-turbine scenario assumes financing with a $3 million Clean Renewable Energy Bond, $750,000 in federal stimulus funding, $500,000 from the state Economic Development Corporation and a townissued, 20-year bond paying 5% interest.

That forecast – and all of the others – may prove to be conservative because the town intends to file separate grant applications for each of the two turbines, potentially doubling the amount of stimulus and EDC money awarded in support of the twin-turbine scenario.

It remains to be seen if the Town Council will vote to proceed with one or two turbines – and it remains to be seen if Jamestown residents will approve the required bonding.

But the council should have a clear path to voting on a preferred scenario at its Feb. 16 meeting – and not just because the net-metering questions will be answered.

The committee has resolved a second issue that arose at the previous council meeting; namely, the transparency of the calculations used by the committee’s economist to reach the original profit forecasts.

Although it appeared that the formulas used by the economist were proprietary, Dan Mendelsohn – an Applied Science Associates consultant – explained that “the formulas are available in the [Wind Power Feasibility Study]. Only the estimates for renewable energy certificates [RECs], and the estimates for electricity markets over the next 20 years are based on formulas which are not in the public domain.”

RECs are basically “securities” whose underlying value is based on their representation that some amount of electricity, expressed as megawatt hours, was produced from a renewable energy source. RECs are saleable or tradable on the open market, where their value will fluctuate like that of any commodity – and Jamestown will earn some money from the RECs it sells after producing electricity from wind.

Besides answering the netmetering and transparency questions when the committee appears before the council on Feb. 16, the group will also provide explanations of the forecasts. The questions about the profit predictions “cast doubt in people’s minds,” said council member Bob Bowen, “and people jumped on that and said, ‘What are the other issues with these numbers?’”

The committee will also provide an estimate of the cost of burying a three-phase cable carrying power from a Ft. Getty turbine. Mendelsohn said he felt that it won’t look any different from the overhead wires already on Ft. Getty Road; however, committee member William “Bucky” Brennan said, “It will look a lot different because you’ll have three wires running across additional cross-members, and we said that we would consider running those underground.”

The overall issues raised by siting a turbine at Ft. Getty, which annually provides the town with about $300,000 in net profit, elicited more discussion than the location of the cables.

Town Planner Lisa Bryer, who represents the planning department on the Wind Energy Committee, said, “I don’t object to Ft. Getty, per se. I just think the council needs to acknowledge that there is a risk. A questionnaire we sent the campers included a question which asked, ‘Will you still camp at Ft. Getty if there’s a wind turbine there?’

“The initial results of the survey,” Bryer continued, “indicate that the majority of the campers don’t object to a turbine. But, if the town intends to continue looking at Ft. Getty as a funding source, we have to consider the risk that some campers will leave. The turbine won’t be silent. There are complaints in the neighborhood around the Portsmouth turbine, and we just don’t know how our campers will respond.”

Referring to the $1.5 million worth of repairs that the campground needs, Brennan said, “The thing that would keep me away from a campground is lousy restrooms and infrastructure. And, yet, the Ft. Getty campground is always packed.”

Abigail Anthony said she has been frustrated by the arguments against siting a turbine at Ft. Getty.

“I don’t feel the campground is run that badly, especially if there’s a waiting list. I know that there are other uses proposed for the park. And even though we have a completed plan, it seems like there isn’t anything concrete being brought to our attention. But this wind turbine project is ready to go.”

During the previous council meeting, which was missing one of its five members, the panel deadlocked on the number of turbines that Jamestown should build. But the Wind Energy Committee is unequivocal in its support for two.

Mendelsohn noted that it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars just to bring in a crane, so committee chair Don Wineberg argued, “It’s better to do two at once because the cost of mobilizing and demobilizing [heavy construction equipment] is substantial.”

Said Brennan, “I want to do what’s best for the economics of Jamestown. If we put up only one turbine somewhere, I don’t know if we’ll ever put up another one. The people of Jamestown will see the turbine up and running, and they’ll say, “We’re all set. We’re ‘green.’”

The committee – which will be re-chartered if the council approves a turbine proposal – also took note of a looming issue: It might be impossible to publicly disclose the purchase price of a turbine and, presumably, its service contract.

That’s because most manufacturers require you to sign a nondisclosure agreement – “sometimes even before they will give you a price,” Mendelsohn said. “If we have three bids from three manufacturers, obviously the council will see those bids, but I don’t know if the public could be told what they are.”

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