Slow Going for R.I. Wind Turbine Development

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Wind energy is alive and at least spinning for one Rhode Island developer.

Construction company owner Mark DePasquale recently erected the state’s tallest wind turbine in the subdivision he built and lives with his family. The 411-foot-high turbine will begin delivering electricity to the power grid by the end of the year.

The project was the first to use the state’s new fixed-energy pricing, known as distributed generation standard contracts. DePasquale expects the turbine to be the first of many built by his company, Wind Energy Development LLC.

Two, possibly taller, turbines are in the works for Picillo Farm, a Superfund site in Coventry. A third wind project is moving ahead in North Smithfield.

DePasquale and Eric Offenberg, a consultant for Wind Energy Development, say the projects aim to reverse the anti-wind sentiment that has halted construction of wind turbines in Westerly, Middletown and Jamestown and led to several bans on wind development across the state.

“This is hopefully setting the wind standard for Rhode Island, if Rhode Island wants wind,” Offenberg said.

DePasquale and Offenberg were finalizing the agreement for two turbines in Westerly when the Town Council halted the project in July after receiving complaints from neighbors. They blame the sudden reversal on a small, misinformed group of residents. DePasquale said the the project would have saved the town millions over the 20-year price agreement.

The duo intend to dispel the fear and risks associated with wind turbines by showing they are safe and quiet.

Until the North Kingstown Green turbine was built, they had little to show for the tens of thousands of hours and several millions invested in utility-scale wind turbines.

Development can take at least two years, to complete siting, conduct wind studies, sign power-purchase agreements, connect to the grid and hold public hearings. The state has offered incentives by passing the distributed generation contract laws in 2011. Forthcoming guidelines on wind turbine siting are also expected to assist cities and towns with establishing wind development standards.

Offenberg said the threat of an expiring federal tax credit has slowed the wind energy sector. “The entire wind industry nationally has been hurt significantly because they don’t know what’s going to happen with that credit," he said.

Wind Energy Development, however, is staying committed to the wind-energy business.

The Coventry turbines were approved by the Town Council in June. Unlike North Kingstown Green, the electricity will be sold directly to the town. Wind Energy Development must first complete a wind study and finalize terms with the recently elected Town Council. A connection agreement also is needed. Construction could begin next summer.

DePasquale intends to avoid the state’s new distributed generation contract program and negotiate a price directly with Coventry officials for a 20-year contract. “The savings in the long term will go to the municipality,” he said.

The North Smithfield turbine is on a tract of land, behind a Walmart Supercenter, slated for open space. If all goes as planned, the turbines will supplant a condominium development using a grant provided to the North Smithfield Land Trust by the state Department of Environmental Management.

A lease payment for use of the land will repay the lending costs. A wind study on the property is scheduled to begin Dec. 3. Construction of the turbine is at least a year off.

Wind Energy Development was one of two developers who offered to restore the broken turbine at Portsmouth High School. DePasquale suggested replacing the entire turbine, tower and all, on the existing foundation. “We feel there’s too much risk repairing that turbine,” Offenberg said.

After the turbine’s gearbox broke in June, Wind Energy Development proposed replacing the entire 336-foot-high turbine with a model that uses a direct-drive system.

Portsmouth is still soliciting bids for the project, but has expressed support for a public-private ownership model.

DePasquale said it’s important for Rhode Island’s wind industry to see the Portsmouth turbine succeed. “With their turbine down, it puts a lot of stress on my business," he said.

Initially, there was considerable public opposition to wind turbines in North Kingstown, causing the Town Council to enact a wind moratorium. DePasquale’s North Kingstown Green project was approved before that ban took effect. To gain support from residents, he visited the Portsmouth High School turbine with several neighbors. “They were relieved they weren’t loud viscous machines,” he said.

He also arranged for each of the 30 homeowners to receive $150 per household for 20 years — a payment similar to leasing fees that are typically paid to the land owner where a turbine is erected.

Traditional construction, specifically large highway projects, remains his main business. DePasquale entered the wind business on the urging of his daughters and their concern about the environment. He’s able to save some costs by using his construction equipment and expertise, but the payback on a wind project doesn’t typically start until 12 years into the project.

But he’s content to wait for wind energy to gain support. “I think it’s going to be little step right now,” he said. “I’d like to this to be my main company. We’ll make it go.”