Newport Man Generates Energy and Anger

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

The four wind turbines on the roof of his Newport home supply electricity for everything but his clothes dryer and kitchen stove. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

The four wind turbines on the roof of his Newport home supply electricity for everything but his clothes dryer and kitchen stove. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

NEWPORT, R.I. — Sometimes you gotta say, “Screw you,” to make things happen. That’s what city resident John McNulty seems to be doing to get local rules established for residential wind turbines.

McNulty, a gifted do-it-yourselfer and admitted “thorn in the ass” to those who disapprove of his abundance of re-purposed outdoor furnishings — piles of masonry stones, assorted boats and a roof that looks like a makeshift weather station — didn’t wait around for government to tell him how to generate his own electricity.

A semi-retired carpenter and rental property owner, McNulty, 71, started building his own turbines in 2007, after attending local seminars about wind energy. He now has four on his home, all built from scrap tubing, computer boards and his remarkable understanding of electrical engineering. Each turbine has its own inverter and battery pack, which supply electricity for everything but his clothes dryer and kitchen stove. Wind energy, along with two generators, have kept the lights on without fail, even after tropical storm Irene shut off power in much of the state last year.

Neighbors, many with expensive views of Newport Harbor, have complained to the city about these visual intrusions, prompting McNulty to dig in his heels. He said he plans to increase the height of a red-and-white flagpole made from a wooden schooner to 62 feet, just to “give people the finger.”

McNulty was cited in 2008 for violating a city zoning ordinance. But he’ll gladly pay attorney fees instead of complying with orders from the city building inspector. He contested the charges, and a Superior Court judge eventually overturned the violations due to a lack of an existing ordinance. Efforts to negotiate an agreement with building and zoning officials fell apart. On July 31, McNulty is headed back to Superior Court for charges of failure to obtain a building permit for installation of equipment and maintaining property in an unsafe condition.

McNulty’s wind turbines, along with the Navy’s proposal for large-scale turbines, prompted the City Council in December to pass a moratorium on wind turbines. In early July, the city’s Department of Planning and Development presented rules allowing residential turbines in neighborhoods designated as non-historic. Rooftop turbines are limited to only10 kilowatts of electricity, and can’t exceed 10 feet from a rooftop and 50 feet from the ground. A minimum lot size of 10,000 square feet also is required to install a wind system.

Utility-scale turbines can be erected in specific industrial neighborhoods. Electric capacity is limited to 100 kilowatts. Only one turbine can be built per property.

All turbines need an annual safety review and inspection by a building official. The electricity can only be used on site, thus prohibiting net metering — or selling electricity back to National Grid.

The City Council on July 11 passed on voting on the wind ordinance and instead proposed holding a workshop at an undetermined date.

McNulty doesn’t completely oppose these proposed rules, but says that his existing turbines are in compliance. His planned turbine, however, will exceed 50 feet and deliver excess electricity to the power grid. His proposal was filed before these new rules were announced, and he therefore believes the project is grandfathered.

The case is likely to take a while, and McNulty is content to wait. “I’ve got all the time in the world,” he said with a smile.

His stubborn defiance may ruffle a few sails, McNulty said, but when someone says no, he only gets more motivated to succeed. “I piss people off, but I’m not a bad guy,” he said.