West Warwick Flips the Switch to Wind Power

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

WEST WARWICK, R.I. — Despite a lack of political will to advance land-based wind energy, one Rhode Island town is going ahead and building a cluster of turbines.

Led by its green-minded town manager, Fred Presley, West Warwick is putting the finishing touches on its purchase of three new wind turbines. The 400-foot-high turbines, however, are going up outside its borders, in Coventry, where a developer is building a series of wind projects.

On Aug. 11, the Town Council approved $18 million in municipal bonds to finance the project. Voters approved the debt plan in late May. The interest payments will run slightly below the electricity expenses the town pays for all of its municipal buildings, including police and fire, five schools and its wastewater treatment plant. As a result, the town will be revenue neutral for 20 years on its energy bills, while most of its power comes from wind.

“After the bonds are paid off, the payoffs to the town are substantial,” Presley said.

He estimated that the town will generate $30 million to $40 million in savings during the 25-year estimated life of the turbines, and perhaps generate additional savings for the years after that they keep spinning.

This fixed cost will allow West Warwick to keep one of its largest expenses flat and avoid increases, such as the 12 percent electricity price increase National Grid requested this year.

“It’s money that’s not going out (of the town budget),” Presley said.

Unlike the broken Portsmouth High School turbine, which was municipally owned, the new turbines use a more durable direct-drive generator. The much-ridiculed Portsmouth turbine failure was blamed on a faulty gearbox — an outdated design that required frequent maintenance and has hampered similar older-model turbines.
“It’s not like the old days when they were prone to break down a lot,” Presley said of the newer models.

After the Portsmouth turbine failed in 2012, several communities such as Jamestown, Westerly and Middletown rejected wind-turbine proposals. Because of public outcry, North Kingstown, Exeter, Middletown and Newport eventually enacted moratoriums on new wind turbines.

To defuse any pushback, West Warwick hosted public meetings and set up a website with the developer, North Kingstown-based Wind Energy Development LLC, showing the durability differences between the Portsmouth turbine and the newer direct-drive models.

“We made a big marketing effort,” Presley said. “We addressed that head-on.”

One of the sticking points for this and future wind projects has been determining who pays for connecting the turbines to the power grid. Wind Energy Development has been in a dispute with National Grid over how those interconnection costs will be assessed. So far, it looks like they will be shared by both parties and possibly passed along to new customers who benefit from upgrades to utility infrastructure.

Presley has long pushed for wind, solar and geothermal energy to save money for a town with a history of budget problems. Next on his wish list is using some of the wind energy to power electric vehicle (EV) charging stations and to upgrade municipal vehicles to EVs.

Meanwhile, construction has already begun on the foundations for the new wind turbines, and they will soon be shipped from Germany to the port at Quonset.

All three turbines could be erected by late September, according to Presley. A “flip-the-switch” ceremony is targeted for March 2016.