While much of the attention on wind power in Rhode Island has been focused on offshore wind farms in recent years, smaller land-based wind projects attached to existing power users have been making steady inroads.
Though they aren’t scheduled to start spinning until this summer, three new turbines at the Narragansett Bay Commission’s Field’s Point sewage treatment plant in Providence are now the most visible renewable energy presence in the state.
When they are activated later in the year, the turbines will have the highest combined generation capacity of any wind-power facility in Rhode Island, at 4.5 megawatts.
Bob Chew, the former wind-business president at Alteris Renewables who now runs R.W. Chew Consultants, said that high visibility can be a benefit to Rhode Island by conveying to residents and visitors a sense of momentum toward renewable energy wind-power usage in the state.
“I think the visibility of turbines, unlike many solar projects, is an advantage. People see it and they say, ‘if it is good for them it might be good for me,’ ” Chew said. “It’s like hybrid cars: the more of them that are on the road, the more people get familiar with them. It takes some of the mystique away.”
On a recent drive from Rhode Island to Key West, Fla., Chew noted the Field’s Point turbines and the two smaller turbines at New England Institute of Technology and Shalom Apartments in Warwick. After leaving the Ocean State, Chew saw one wind turbine along the highway in New Haven and then none for the remainder of the 1,600-mile trip down Interstate 95.
“The good news is that, at least along I-95, Rhode Island is doing pretty good for wind power,” Chew said.
For the Narragansett Bay Commission, the quasi-state agency that treats most of the Providence area’s sewage, the advantages of the wind turbines should be more tangible.
The Field’s Point sewage-treatment plant spends $2.5 million a year in electricity and the three 1.5-megawatt turbines are expected to produce approximately half the power needed to operate the facility, saving $1 million each year, bay commission spokeswoman Jamie Samons said.
With a total project cost of $12.2 million, the wind-power project is expected to pay for itself by 2024 or 2026, depending on how hard the wind blows.
“In addition to the savings, we consider ourselves an environmental organization so the green aspects of it are important,” Samons said.
The Narragansett Bay Commission’s Field’s Point turbine project was financed through low-interest loans from the R.I. Clean Water Finance Agency. The commission also received a $35,000 grant from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant to study renewable energy use at Field’s Point, as well as the Bucklin Point treatment plant in East Providence, plus a $50,000 grant for detailed studies of the turbine project.
Similar private wind-power projects would also be eligible for a federal tax credit worth 30 percent of the total project cost.
While all three turbines are standing, the project still has some way to go before the blades start turning and producing power for the treatment plant.
The motors have not been installed yet and the Narragansett Bay Commission still needs to reach an agreement with National Grid on how much the utility will pay for excess power the turbines send back into the electrical grid.
The bay commission expects to be able to activate the turbines by mid-to-late summer.
In addition to future savings for the Narragansett Bay Commission, the turbine project has provided a boost for suppliers and builders, including Providence-based Gilbane Inc., which won the contract to construct the turbines.
Gilbane has worked with the Narragansett Bay Commission before, most recently on the combined sewer-overflow project, but had never taken on a wind turbine before.
“It is a significant project and our first wind project,” said Gilbane Project Executive John Kaplin. “We are taking a good, hard look at seeing if these projects are right for us and getting involved. If the opportunities make sense, then this is our first big entry and we have gone through a lot of lessons learned. We will be in a good position to look at getting into the market.”
One of the big challenges of the Field’s Point turbines is that, unlike a wind farm, the units have to be installed in the middle of a busy, functioning, wastewater-treatment plant that can’t be shut down to clear the way for construction crews.
Gilbane is also involved in working out the interconnect agreement with National Grid, something the firm hasn’t been faced with in many other building projects.
Kaplin said the Narragansett Bay Commission would be the smallest wind-power project Gilbane would consider in the future.
“Overall this has been a great project,” Kaplin said. “The turbines have been first-class. They are quality turbines and they went up without a problem, on schedule.”
Going forward, the pace of new wind power projects rests in large part on efforts to make them more cost-effective.
A law passed last year in Rhode Island to stimulate renewable energy allows turbine builders to lock in a long-term, set price to sell any excess electricity they generate back into the power grid.
On the other hand, the end of federal stimulus funds for renewable energy has eliminated one of the public incentives that made wind projects more economically attractive.
“The largest problem is upfront cost, because you are buying the unit upfront and all the savings come in subsequent years,” Chew said. “I know state incentives have been the difference between projects happening or not.
“Overall I think Rhode Island has a good climate for renewable energy, there just isn’t enough funding for incentives,” Chew added. •