2012-01-19 / Front Page

Turbine sparks veiled threat from state

Turnpike authority says safety can become an issue because of ‘shadow flicker’
BY PHIL ZAHODIAKIN

After all the years of wind turbine studies and debate, two important issues have finally become clear.

The first is the turbine’s visual impact on the island: Jamestowners will be able to visit the town’s website and look at animations of a spinning Taylor Point wind turbine as it would appear from various locations. The second is the state’s position on the turbine: They don’t want it anywhere near the Newport- Pell Bridge.

The latest act in the turbine drama played out during the Town Council’s Jan. 17 meeting. The focus of the discussion was a presentation by local consultant Harley Lee, who has been hired to perform a feasibility assessment of a Taylor Point turbine.

Lee unveiled his preliminary economic projections, along with videos of a simulated Taylor Point turbine, for the council. But the numbers he has, so far, won’t be firmed up for another month – with the most pivotal projection being the cost to hook up a Taylor Point turbine to the North Road power lines or the Clarke Street substation.


The Town Council released animations of a spinning Taylor Point turbine at Tuesday’s meeting. Above is a photo taken from a YouTube video of what a 2-megawatt turbine would look like from North Road. Below is a photo of what a 600-kilowatt turbine would look like from the same spot. URLs for the spinning animations can be found on Page 18. The Town Council released animations of a spinning Taylor Point turbine at Tuesday’s meeting. Above is a photo taken from a YouTube video of what a 2-megawatt turbine would look like from North Road. Below is a photo of what a 600-kilowatt turbine would look like from the same spot. URLs for the spinning animations can be found on Page 18. Whatever Lee’s final projection turns out to be, National Grid – which would buy the turbine’s electricity – will review the calculations and issue a defi nitively final number. For now, Lee is projecting the substation option to cost $1.7 million, which is just $300,000 less than the rough estimate issued by the grid itself.

One of the numbers that wasn’t ready for Lee’s presentation, however, was a projection for the cost to run an “extension cord” along a shorter route: across the golf course and adjoining wet- lands to the North Road power lines feeding the substation.

That projection will be presented to the council in February. But Lee has determined that, even after spending $1.7 million on the substation option, Jamestown would still net $40,000 a year from electricity sales at a locked-in rate of 13 cents per kilowatt hour. Under a “best case” scenario in which interconnection costs across the golf course are substantially less, the town’s annual net profit would jump to $100,000.

The best-case scenario also includes a $500,000 grant from the Rhode Island Renewable Energy Fund via the Economic Development Corporation. Town Administrator Bruce Keiser has previously expressed optimism that the town will be awarded the grant, but it’s not a “done deal.”

Moreover, as the council learned during the turbine discussion, the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority has fresh concerns about the Taylor Point site, and the message was delivered with much more force than it was in a June 2011 letter to Keiser.

In that letter, the authority focused on the “aesthetics” of a Taylor Point turbine. But the agency is now raising a “public safety” issue, and the presence of an outside attorney arguing the merits of that issue implies that the state will go to court to block the turbine if the alleged safety issue isn’t fully mitigated.

The attorney was Brian Lamoreux, an attorney in the Providence office of Pannone, Lopes, Devereaux & West, which has offices in other eastern cities. Lamoreux raised the specter of Newport Bridge traffic accidents caused by “shadow flicker” from the spinning turbine blades.

Lamoreux pointed out that the Newport Bridge is a conveyance for 10 million vehicle trips per year, and warned that westbound drivers will encounter a dangerous shadow flicker distraction as sunlight strobes through the spinning blades during sunrise and sunset. He added that the probability of accidents from shadow flicker isn’t significant “until you multiply the probability by 10 million trips per year.”

He also brought up the aesthetic issue by pointing out that the Newport Bridge “is the secondmost iconic structure in Rhode Island after the Independent Man statue on top of the Capitol dome,” implying that the state intends to preserve the visual sanctity of the Newport Bridge. He also raised a concern about the safety of authority “employees working within the turbine’s fall zone,” and the possibility of “turbulence” from the turbine blades knocking a “box truck” out of its bridge lane.

Lamoreux added, “The authority wants to be a good neighbor, but [Taylor Point] is too close to the bridge.” RITBA’s executive director, Buddy Croft, also addressed the council, although he didn’t say why the authority has retained outside counsel for the turbine issue instead of enlisting someone from the ranks of state attorneys. He only said, “We have tried to be respectful, but we have concerns and great reservations about the location.”

Several audience members questioned those reservations. For example, Seth Steinman, a North Kingstown resident and program associate at People’s Power and Light, pointed out that there is a “ton of distractions” in the area around the bridge. And, like the boats, water and clouds that drivers see as they drive across the bridge, “The turbine will just become part of the landscape,” Steinman assured the council.

Even though the RITBA concerns are emerging as a significant problem, the council will remain focused on the financial viability of the turbine for the time being. Lee has already determined that a 600-kilowatt turbine would not be profitable for the town, and his profit projections are based upon the output from a 2-megawatt unit.

Previously, it seemed like the best option would be a 1.65-megawatt turbine, but Lee said that technological enhancements would allow the larger turbine to be sited without the necessity to elevate it (for more wind energy) beyond the 400-foot restriction imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Resident Blake Dickinson, who adamantly opposes the turbine, told the council that Portsmouth has “deeply underestimated the [operations and maintenance] costs for its turbine,” But Lee pointed out that his “worst case” model for the operations and maintenance outlays required for a 2-megawatt turbine assumes an expenditure of $100,000 a year – along with $30,000 a year for scheduled maintenance.

The councilors didn’t express any particular opinions on the video simulations of a working 400-foot high turbine except to acknowledge, and briefly discuss, them. The simulation from the crest of the Newport Bridge is, of course, the most vivid. But the tower and the spinning blades still seemed salient when seen from North Road.

The rapidly intensifying issue will be revisited during the council’s Feb. 18 meeting, when Lee expects to have his final projections ready for presentation.

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