By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Opposition to the state's largest proposed wind turbine project is being fueled by two words: "eminent domain."
The term has raised the ire of political groups and government skeptics in recent months, as the East Bay Energy Consortium (EBEC) has pushed for legislation to establish itself as a public-private state agency.
During a May 2 Statehouse hearing, political ideologues were quick to dispel the project as a land-grabbing threat to free society. Lisa Blais of Ocean State Tea Party in Action said if given the special designation EBEC would become "a dangerous quasi-government agency that is answerable to no one."
Blais and other opponents of the bill claimed state representatives and town/city councils within the nine-community EBEC alliance were withdrawing support for the bill after learning about the eminent domain clause.
EBEC has said it is simply seeking eminent domain authority out of necessity, and has insisted there is no plan to take land. Having the privilege allows EBEC to assume all liability for the project and with it the ability to issue municipal bonds, which will be needed to fund the proposed $50 million to $60 million wind project in Tiverton.
EBEC was started in 2009 as a first-of-its-kind regional collaboration to establish local energy projects. By pooling new renewable energy incentives into a single project, each participating city and town intends to cut energy costs and reduce its reliance on fossil-fuels and its volatile prices.
Over the course of monthly meetings, representatives from nine member communities — East Providence, Barrington, Warren, Bristol, Newport, Portsmouth, Middletown, Little Compton and Tiverton — created a proposal for a 10-12 turbine wind farm at the Tiverton Industrial Park. The site is ideal for its wind speed and access to electric transmission lines, according to the EBEC. Funding for the planning and studies has so far come from the state Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and The Rhode Island Foundation.
An initial study estimated annual payments of $200,000 to each EBEC community with at least another $350,000 paid to Tiverton for hosting the wind project.
Newport City Council member Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, chairwoman of the EBEC, has said the consortium's primary goal is cutting costs, not taking land. "We all definitely want to save some money for ratepayers and taxpayers," she said during an April 5 House hearing.
Late last week, the legislation was modified to show the many approvals needed for EBEC to use eminent domain, such as approval from the municipality with the land, the Public Utilities Commission and the EBEC board and delegate from the host municipality.
Tiverton is a long way from approving the EBEC proposal, as it also considers other privately funded renewable energy projects on the 650-acre site. Tiverton Town Council member David Nelson said the EBEC project would be a difficult sell if eminent domain was part of the deal. "In it's current form, it would not pass the council today," he said.
Former EBEC vice chairman Andy Shapiro, who now works for Apex Wind, one of the private developers vying to build the project, suspects the EBEC plan will fail as details of the bill are reviewed.
"I think EBEC will have a hard time holding on to the municipalities when they find out what's in the bill," Shapiro said.
Do to a lack of quorum, the Senate hearing was continued until another date. The House bill is also being held in committee.