2010-11-18 / Front Page

Council discusses options surrounding wind turbine

By Phil Zahodiakin

The Town Council this week deferred to its next meeting a decision on the next steps – if any – towards building a wind turbine.

The decision will be the latest in a yearlong series of Council votes on various turbine proposals, with the most recent vote endorsing an official position against a referendum to finance a turbine.

The Council wanted the referendum rejected because there wasn’t enough time to answer some major questions about the feasibility of building a Taylor Point turbine that was large enough to be profitable for the town. But the voters passed the referendum, thereby raising the question: what next?

The councilors discussed a group of options at their Nov. 15 meeting. The option that gained the most traction requires an upfront expenditure of $35,000 to pin down the actual costs of integrating a 1.65-megawatt turbine with the local grid.

The outlay would include $2,500 for National Grid to perform a “screening assessment” of the interconnection costs; $5,000 to $8,000 to formally appeal the Federal Aviation Administration ruling against a 450-foot-high turbine at Taylor Point; and another $25,000 for a detailed interconnection study by National Grid.

Town Administrator Bruce Keiser said the detailed study would “let us know – plus or minus 25 percent – what the costs would be for any upgrades [to the local grid]. We would also expect to learn if a turbine is unsuitable for Taylor Point, and whether the costs [because of grid upgrades] would be enormous.”

Asked to assess the prospects for an appeal of the FAA ruling, Keiser quoted a consultant as saying it was “highly probable” that the town would be successful.

Council President Mike Schnack said he wasn’t quite ready to propose the $35,000 outlay for a vote, but added that the Council should reach its decision at the next meeting because the clock is ticking on a $750,000 federal grant to help Jamestown build a turbine.

Keiser said that the turbine project “had to be completed by March 2012” or the grant would be withdrawn. “That sort of forc- es our hand,” Keiser said.

Keiser also pointed out that he asked the state’s Office of Energy Resources about a possible deadline extension in early October, and has not heard back. A second question that needs an answer, however, is the level of completion that has to be attained by the deadline.

Does the turbine have to be operational for the grant to be awarded? Or, would the grant still be available if the turbine was only half-finished? The answer is unknown, but it’s important to find out because, Keiser said, without the grant, building a 1.65-megawatt turbine would not be a profitable enterprise.

If the town proceeds with the $35,000 initiative to answer the interconnection questions, and learns that it’s economically unfeasible to build the turbine, it would still be possible, Keiser said, to build a much smaller turbine to serve the wastewater treatment plant and still generate a little excess electricity to sell at retail prices to National Grid.

Although the referendum to provide $6.5 million in bond fi- nancing passed by a slim margin, former Wind Energy Committee member Bucky Brennan said its passage – despite all the turmoil – speaks volumes about local support for a turbine.

“What concerns me,” Brennan said, “is that we’re ‘micromanaging’ the issues [instead of devising] a plan and proceeding in a methodical manner. Every major construction project has issues. You need to put together a team and appoint a project manager to solve those issues.”

A second turbine option that the Council discussed – albeit briefly – is the possibility of joining the consortium of towns exploring the feasibility of building a Tiverton wind farm.

Councilor Bob Bowen pointed out that the consortium is “behind our schedule” to meet the grant deadline, and added, “My recommendation is to consider the town-owned turbine as the best option.” Another problem with the Tiverton option, the discussions indicated, is that the federal grant probably wouldn’t be applicable to an off-island turbine.

Additionally, Keiser observed, “there’s a question of whether the voters approved a bond to build a turbine on the island or a turbine anywhere. The [ballot question] referred to a Jamestown turbine, so we might have to ask the question again” if the town joined the consortium.

After the meeting, however, Keiser reexamined the ballot question and said, “It only asks if Jamestown should be granted the authority to issue bonds to finance a turbine: it doesn’t specify Taylor Point or any other location on the island.” However, while the language of the ballot question doesn’t seem to preclude the use of bond proceeds to join an offisland consortium, the language of the legislation enabling the ballot question does.

“It specifically identifies Taylor Point as the location of the turbine,” Keiser said.

A third option for the town – entering into a partnership with a wind-energy developer – also failed to get much traction. Bowen observed that the towns which have entered into public-private wind-turbine partnerships “have higher bonding rates than we do, but we don’t have that problem [of paying a high rate to raise money.”

The fourth option – doing nothing and allowing the bonding authority to remain on the books indefinitely – was not discussed.

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