Three wind turbines standing 365 feet tall at the Narragansett Bay Commission’s Field Point Wastewater Treatment Plant in Providence are visible reminders of the promise of wind energy and the state’s efforts to be a national leader in the industry.
“We’re among the first wastewater-treatment plants in the country to be using wind energy,” said Narragansett Bay Commission spokesperson Jamie Samons. She estimates about half-a-dozen wastewater facilities are using wind power. The new turbines were commissioned Dec. 3. They are expected to save $800,000 to $1 million in annual energy costs, about 40 percent of the energy bill, at the Field’s Point facility, Samons said.
For much of the past year, however, local news in the industry has been less about its promise than project delays or second thoughts tied to concerns about cost and regulation. A high-profile failure in Portsmouth has also renewed questions in many communities about the financial merits of wind energy.
In Portsmouth, municipal leaders are stuck with a nonworking wind turbine and $2.3 million remaining of the $3 million debt. The gear box, supposed to last 20 years, failed after three years. A study on the gear-box failure, done by a Seattle engineer, was completed in October.
“As it turns out, gear-box problems are throughout the industry,” said Gary Crosby, acting town planner for Portsmouth.
To complicate the troubles, the town bought the turbine in 2009 from AAER, a Canadian company that went bankrupt in 2010.
“We went with the lowest bidder,” said Crosby. “If we had gone with a more reputable manufacturer, I’m sure we would have still been in operation.”
So what’s to be done with the 336-foot-tall burden on taxpayers?
“There are people in the town who think we should take it down and sell it for scrap,” Crosby said. ”But the cost of taking it down would almost equal the scrap value.”
Crosby said other options under consideration include: buying a new gear box for about $280,000 and having the town remain as owner and operator of the turbine; or, preferably, working out a public/private partnership with a company that would maintain and operate the turbine.