2011-08-18 / Front Page

Turbine debate keeps spinning, extension needed for wind studies

BY PHIL ZAHODIAKIN

Despite a light agenda, there was plenty of substance in the Aug. 15 discussions held by the Town Council. The topic with the greatest financial implications for the town was the ongoing effort to gather feasibility data for the proposed wind turbine, but the councilors also addressed two other high-profile issues: the Fort Getty boat-ramp controversy and the possibility of reducing water rates for residents using the least amount of town-supplied water.

The future of the turbine proposal is still far from a resolution, but Town Administrator Bruce Keiser reported that there will be money available to potentially support the pending analyses necessary to reach a decision. That’s because the state Department of Energy will release “a certain amount” of the stimulus money intended for Rhode Island’s renewable energy projects.

Each of those projects has had its awards rescinded because none of them was on track to meet the March 2012 deadline for project completion. Now, however, DOE has decided to make some of the renewable energy funding available to the state Economic Development Corporation, and Jamestown will definitely be responding to the pending request for proposals.

In its response, the town will seek funding to extend the sampling period for the radar unit (also known as sodar), which is measuring wind speed and turbulence at Taylor Point. The town has been paying Second Wind $7,000 per month for the sampling, which started this spring, but the company has agreed to charge less – $1,500 per month – if the town requests additional sampling, Keiser said. He added that the town would seek at least three more months of data, which would extend the sampling period to the end of November.

But the “elephant in the living room” remains the enormous estimate for National Grid to install new power lines, and presumably upgrade the island’s substation, to handle the surge of electricity from a 1.65-megawatt turbine. Keiser said that he has asked National Grid, which says the upgrades could cost as much as $2 million, to provide the town with a written copy of the estimate.

A written copy is important because it will inform the pending, economic analysis of different turbine outputs. Given the current capacity of the town’s power lines, the largest turbine that the town could build without upgrades would have an output of 500 kilowatts. The economic analysis, which will be performed by Alteris – the same company that would install the turbine – is intended to project revenues from turbines of various outputs. It is unclear, however, if the town’s contract with Alteris provides for the modeling, or if the town would have to kick in more money for that work.

On the other hand, it’s known that National Grid will charge $25,000 for a detailed cost estimate of the upgrades necessary to accommodate a big turbine. Keiser said that the town would seek to recoup that money – assuming the town proceeds with a request for a Phase 2 study by National Grid – from the re-released stimulus money.

In his public comments on the drawn-out turbine proposal, resident Blake Dickinson asked why the council has, in his view, repeatedly ignored “triggers to pull the plug.” Councilor Bob Bowen replied that he has repeatedly answered Dickinson’s question, saying that the project will be halted only “when the Town Council decides that the turbine is not economically feasible. We have not set any other ‘triggers.’”

Dickinson followed up his comments on the turbine by asking if the town will face any “liability” by virtue of failing “to follow state specifi cations” for the design of the new, Fort Getty boat ramp. “It’s my understanding that you can’t launch a boat from that ramp.”

Keiser disputed the assertion that the boat ramp is “unusable,” pointing out that, last month, “I took a ride out there on a Saturday and I counted 20 vacant boat trailers, which means that the boats were launched. That’s the reality, and some people have observed that the ramp is OK, which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have some problems. The slope had been 11 percent, and now it’s 10 percent, sothat’sa1percentchange,which has impacted some boaters.” Keiser added that they are looking at alternatives to increase the slope.

Bowen pointed out that the Harbor Management Commission could have proceeded with a much more elaborate project to dredge the sediments in front of the ramp (in order to build a longer one) and install a touch-and-go dock. But those waters have been designated “conservation waters” by the state, which means that a dredging proposal would have had to wend its way through an arduous Coastal Resources Management Commission-permitting process.

Bowen added that CRMC designated the boat-ramp waters off Sheffi eld Cove as conservation waters “in error.” However, it will be up to the Harbor Commission to debate this issue and decide if the council should ask CRMC to change its designation, which will be a lengthy process as well.

Prior to the council meeting, the councilors – sitting as the town’s water and sewer commissioners – revisited an idea brought forward this spring by Bowen: reducing water rates for those who use less than 5,000 gallons per quarter. Everyone using that volume or less pays a flat fee. Everyone using more is charged for “excess” water use.

Bowen has pointed out that the minimum fee helps support those who use the most town water by keeping the charges for excess wateruse lower than they would be without the flat fee for everyone else. The latest data supplied by Finance Director Tina Collins shows that 37 percent of the residents supplied with town water are using less than 5,000 gallons per quarter.

The issue is part of a broader question: How can the town increase revenue for water-system maintenance without imposing an ever-greater burden on those who use the water? Bowen suggested one approach might be using some of the money from the higher, fire-suppression fees paid by the town to reduce the sticker shock for excess-water payments if the flat fee for minimal water-users were reduced.

This fiscal year, the town will pay $125,000 in fire-suppression fees, which are sometimes referred to as hydrant-rental fees. Councilor Mike White pointed out that it’s misleading to use that term because the fees “don’t just pay for the water supplied to the hydrants. It’s also used to fill the [fire trucks] that put out fires everywhere on the island.”

Council President Mike Schnack added, “Just as everyone on the island is sharing the costs for fire suppression, everyone on the island is sharing the costs for protecting the drinking water in the shores when we take the [foreclosed] tax lots off the tax rolls and lose the tax revenue they would bring in.”

Providing town water to more of the island usually comes up in connection with the water-rate issue, and this week’s discussion was no exception. However, expanding the system would put a greater strain on the island’s available surface-water resources, which would require current water-users to increase their water conservation.

The problem with that approach, Keiser pointed out, is that “Jamestown is already a model for water conservation in Rhode Island. We have the most progressive conservation measures in the state. On average, annual water consumption in other towns exceeds 60,000 gallons per year. Jamestown’s annual average is less than 39,000 gallons per year. If we increase conservation, we would reduce revenue, which would force us to raise our rates.”

Said Schnack, “We have a diffi- cult balancing act because we have a small system with fixed costs, and we have to spread around those costs.”

Ultimately, the issue of water-rate adjustments was tabled, once again. But it will return, Bowen said, “as part of a broader discussion on the possibility of expanding the town’s water system.”

In its final piece of business, the council unanimously approved the contract for the new police chief, Edward Mello, who will assume his post on Sept. 19. Keiser said that Mello is in the process of looking for a residence in Jamestown, or, if not the island, within 10 miles of the island.

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