By KYLE HENCE/ecoRI News contributor
NEWPORT, R.I. — Less than a week after the Department of the Interior opened the Rhode Island coast to offshore wind energy development, local officials held a public workshop on a smaller-scale wind energy ordinance the city’s own Energy & Environment Commission found highly restrictive. The proposed ordinance would implement an outright ban on turbines, regardless of design or size, across about 80 percent of the city.
Drafted by the Planning Board during the past year, the ordinance details requirements for property owners planning installation of small-scale wind turbines that cover height, decibel limits and safety. Board Chairman James Dring and Planning & Development staffer Andrew DeIonno, who joined City Council members and other local officials around a table in council chambers at City Hall on Dec. 5, prepared the ordinance.
Rhode Island as a whole has staked a national leadership position with its Ocean SAMP to carefully develop commercial offshore wind energy potential off the mainland and Block Island. However, the city and town council members on Aquidneck Island have yet to follow suit with a more distributed approach available through the use of much smaller commercial- and residential-scale wind turbines.
In September, the Middletown Town Council voted to limit wind turbines to farms only, despite available technologies and designs that reduce or eliminate concerns over noise and shadow flicker. While there is significant state-level progress with utility-scale commercial wind energy projects, communities on Aquidneck Island and Jamestown are taking a far more conservative approach relative to smaller-scale, more-decentralized renewable energy solutions that foster energy independence and energy savings and reduce greenhouse gas emission. Newport’s proposed ordinance, if adopted as drafted, would continue that recent local trend.
Powered by gas
Currently, Rhode Island derives about 90 percent of its energy from natural gas, with a total of 12 fossil-fueled energy plants operating statewide, according to a recently released report from Environment Rhode Island.
“Coal- and natural gas-fired power plants pollute our air, are major contributors to global warming and consume vast amounts of water— harming our rivers and lakes and leaving less water for other uses,” according to the report. “Wind energy has none of these problems. It produces no air pollution, makes no contribution to global warming and uses no water.”
Today, only 2 percent of Rhode Island’s electricity is generated from renewable sources such as wind, solar or landfill gas. However, state law (General Law Chapter 39-26) mandates that by 2020 16 percent of electricity sold in the state must be generated from renewable resources.
The proposed Newport ordinance (pdf) is modeled after those in Massachusetts, according to Dring and Delonno, who responded to a dozen questions from City Council members during the 45-minute workshop. Handouts mapping the turbine ban were presented to the council, but weren’t made available to the public or press prior to the start of the workshop, nor were these details projected for the benefit of the viewing public attending the workshop — a concern expressed by Beth Milham, co-chair of the Energy & Environment Commission.
Council member Kate Leonard brought attention to the non-functioning Portsmouth High School wind turbine, raising concerns about costs, though large utility-scale turbines weren’t the focus of the workshop and are in fact banned in the proposed ordinance. Leonard also raised concerns about placing turbines in the city’s historic districts.
“The comp plan talks about the importance of protecting the historic nature of the districts,” said Leonard, referring to the city’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan.
Council member Justin MacLaughlin cited concern over the requirement to conduct an annual safety review. The cost for review would be born by the turbine owner, Dring said.
Plenty of restrictions
The ordinance defines a residential scale system as one with a “rated capacity of up to 10 kilowatts or less of onsite consumption,” limiting height to 50 feet or 10 feet above a roof ridgeline. In addition to size, the ordinance restricts decibel level to current citywide limits on noise. Reflecting this common concern, one local resident and an outright opponent of wind energy, related a story of being kept awake by a small, yacht-mounted wind turbine while overnighting aboard his own yacht in Block Island’s Great Salt Pond.
The draft ordinance bans outright wind turbines of any size or type in the city’s historic districts, the most contentious issue addressed during the recent workshop. This prompted concerns put on record by the Energy & Environment Commission after the workshop opened for public comment.
“It is our feeling that a blanket prohibition in all historic districts is much too restrictive,” said Milham, reading from an official statement. “Newport is a living historical area, not a museum” — an argument perhaps not lost on City Council members who voted to approve the avant-garde “concept art” of designer Maya Lin, featuring faux foundations and chimney, part of a revamp, now underway, of downtown Queen Anne Square in the heart of the historic downtown district.
“There are areas in the south end of the city with large lots and homes that are not historic,” Milham continued. “These are areas that would also have the best wind resources. As long as they comply with the stated (and appropriate) restrictions on noise and flicker … there should be no cause for reasonable objections.”
A map of Newport distributed to council members by City Manager Jane Howington shows a broad area in red where turbines of any size or type would be prohibited. This includes an outright ban, with the exception of a single lot, along the entire windswept shoreline south from First Beach around Ocean Drive, along Fort Adams and the harbor front north to the Newport Yacht Club.
The Energy & Environment Commission suggested in its comments that larger plots along the interior of Ocean Drive, with non-historic structures, should be allowed to install smaller wind turbines. The seven-member commission’s mission is to advise the City Council and educate the public on energy efficiency, renewable energy and the environment. The group took no issue with the ban of turbines in the city’s downtown densely populated historic districts, where lot size is small.
“They are installed all over Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard,” said Doug Sabetti, owner of Newport Solar and a commission member. “They are as a natural a view along the ocean as fishing boats.”
Sabetti surveyed wind turbine owners across Aquidneck Island in advance of the workshop. In an e-mail, Sabetti wrote that the two small residential-scale turbines at Ventura Farms on Mitchells Lane in Middletown had exceeded expected output and reduced average winter electricity bills from $350 to $15. He noted that the owners had received no complaints of any kind from neighbors.