Broken Portsmouth Wind Turbine Gets State Help

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Portsmouth High School's busted wind turbine, which Gov. Lincoln Chafee recently called “a symbol of embarrassment,” is getting some assistance from the state.

In June, the Portsmouth Town Council approved a funding plan to re-commission the 336-foot-tall wind turbine, which has been out of service since June 2012 because of a broken gearbox. On Monday night, the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation aided the Town Council’s efforts by approving a plan to delay repayment of $270,000 in debt. The action helps the town replace the gearbox and make the project financially viable, although much less profitable.

Chafee and Commerce RI board members expressed sympathy for the town and the string of bad luck that left it with a costly repair and no immediate opportunities to fix it.

“The poor town was left with very few options,” said Chafee, who serves as chairman of the corporation's board of directors.

The misfortune included a faulty gearbox, the bankruptcy of the turbine’s manufacturer, the expiration of a repair warranty, and lack of adequate oversight by the operation and maintenance company that monitored the turbine.

Town planner Gary Crosby noted that Portsmouth bought the turbine from a relatively new and unproven manufacturer. He said the 1.5-megawatt turbine was a success story for 39 months, after it went online in March 2009. It generated more than 9 million kilowatts of electricity and $348,000 in revenue to the town, he said.

It will cost about $885,000 to replace the gearbox and repair the turbine’s damaged blades. The town also owes about $2.1 million from a $3 million bond local voters approved to finance the turbine.

To cut that expense, the attorney general's office gave the town $250,000 from a settlement fund created by a Clean Air Act lawsuit. Green energy provider People’s Power & Light has agreed buy to the wind power once the turbine is operational.

Once funding is in place, it’s expected to take three to six months to repair the turbine.

On June 3, the Town Council reluctantly agreed to re-build the turbine after reaching the conclusion that other options would leave the town with significant debt. During the past two years, the town has spent $200,000 to seek solutions for the idle turbine while also making $680,000 in debt payments.

Crosby, the Town Council and consultants hired to find a fix for the turbine all recognized that once the turbine is repaired it still presents several risks. Due to its history of mechanical problems it can no longer secure an insurance policy to fund repairs.

To address this risk of future repair needs, $80,000 from operations will be paid into a self-insurance fund annually. The town also will add $65,000 to the fund. The new gearbox is expected to have a six-year warranty.

On July 28, Commerce RI approved a plan that will allow debt payments to also go into the insurance fund. If all goes smoothly, the town will repay the principal of the Commerce RI loan in 10 years.

Board member Karl Wadensten, who supported the debt restructuring plan, noted that the loan was unlike others issued by the state economic development agency and therefore wouldn't set a precedent other renewable-energy projects might follow. According to Commerce RI, similar wind turbine projects have been funded with grants that didn't require repayment.