By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — A symbol of Rhode Island's sputtering wind industry is getting a second life and, perhaps, delivering new energy into the local wind business.
The Town Council's unanimous vote on Nov. 6 to allow the broken high-school turbine to be taken down and replaced, with a $1.4 million payment from developer Mark DePasquale and additional state funds, is a turnaround for the embattled project that Gov. Lincoln Chafee has called a "symbol of embarrassment."
The 336-foot-tall turbine has been out of service since June 2012 because of a faulty gearbox. In the three prior years, the first large-scale windmill in the state delivered profits, earning the town $348,000 in revenue. But after the mechanical failure, and the supplier going bankrupt, the town was stuck with several expensive options for repairing or even dismantling the turbine.
As town planner Gary Crosby considered proposals from wind developers and manufacturers, the idle turbine was frequently singled out as an excuse for towns such as Westerly and Jamestown to defeat wind-turbine proposals. Plans for small wind farms and single-turbine projects also fell by the wayside.
But DePasquale, founder of Wind Energy Development LLC, has quietly pushed ahead. He built the state’s second commercial turbine in 2012, at a housing development he owns in North Kingston.
After spending more than $3 million to address connection issues with National Grid, DePasquale plans to build turbines in bulk. He received approval for 10 more turbines in and around the former Picillo pig farm in Coventry. He plans on building a renewable-energy education center near a new turbine on Victory Highway in Coventry. Twelve turbines and towers are on order from German manufacturer Vensys-Goldwind. The turbines cost $2.6 million each and are expected to be shipped to the Port of Davisville in North Kingstown next summer and be operating by November 2015.
DePasquale plans to erect 65 turbines in five years across Rhode Island. Once the new Portsmouth High School turbine is operational, he hopes to revive some of the projects that failed in other communities.
In the Portsmouth deal, DePasquale agreed to pay a $1.45 million lump sum to the town within six months and another $500,000 across several years. The town will pay DePasquale for the electricity from the turbine for 25 years at a floor price of 15.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Depasquale expects the standard price of electricity to climb much higher than the floor rate, thus eliminating the premium it would pay if the town started paying for the elctricity today. The new turbine is expected to be operational within two years.
The Town Council choose the upfront payment because it covers the $1.4 million the town owes on a $3 million loan local voters approved to build the turbine.
“It will make us whole as quickly as possible,” Town Council member Michael Buddemeyer said.
The attorney general's office also gave the town $250,000 from a settlement fund created by a Clean Air Act lawsuit.
Crosby said DePasquale’s offer was selected after he was unable to find an option that gave the town a stream of revenue from the turbine. “Our goal was to cover our losses and we were able to do that,” he said.
DePasquale said it costs $7.4 million to take down the broken turbine and build a new one. The expense is about $1 million more than a new turbine installation. But, he said, it’s a premium he is willing to pay in order to get the project running and revive wind energy in the state.
He called Portsmouth “pioneers of the state” for building the first and only municipally owned turbine. “This is good for the town," DePasquale said. "This is good for me. We’ll get the turbine running and we’ll help other municipalities get turbines up and running.”