Hummel Report: The Law Of Wind

Some call it an attractive energy source: renewable and sustainable.

Others say wind energy is expensive and inconsistent, needing government subsidies to survive.
Four years ago, nine communities in the East Bay came together to explore tapping into wind energy as a way to generate revenue. EBEC- The East Bay Energy Consortium- included Barrington, Bristol, East Providence, Little Compton, Middletown, Newport, Portsmouth, Tiverton and Warren.
Jeanne Napolitano, who was Newport’s mayor when EBEC formed and serves as its current chairman, says the communities got together as talk of regionalization began to emerge. “The buzz at the time was renewables. It’s still out there – renewables. And we decided that was the area we would focus on.”
The consortium has secured a total of nearly half a million dollars since it was formed in 2009 – most of it through the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation from surcharges on National Grid customers, dedicated toward developing renewable energy.
But as the economics of wind energy have changed, critics have questioned the consortium’s model. Longtime Bristol Town Councilman Halsey Herreshoff objected to his town holding and distributing the money. It had to because EBEC was not – and still is not – an official entity. He also objected to EBEC taking advantage of a law that would force National Grid to buy power from EBEC at a much higher cost, and at the expense of its other ratepayers.
It’s known as net metering.
Herreshoff: “Why should we, if we could, make a profit on the backs of every single ratepayer in the whole state of Rhode Island? Wouldn’t they hate us?”
A 2010 feasibility study said there were significant risks involved in a project of this scope and size. Part of the seed money from Rhode Island EDC paid for a tower to test the wind at the Tiverton Industrial Park, a potential site to locate turbines. The reality is that while there are many windy places in the East Bay, putting turbines in most of them wouldn’t fly politically.
But when the Bristol Town Council asked for the test results from the Tiverton tower, the lawyer who provided counsel for the project refused, saying it was ‘proprietary information.’ He would not even share it with council members privately.
And that irked Halsey Herreshoff. “The reason given was that it was proprietary and they didn’t want a private business to get the information. Well there are a couple of things wrong with that. One has to suspect that because they wouldn’t divulge the test maybe the results were not very satisfactory; maybe there’s not enough wind in that particular location for all I know.’’
Napolitano defended the secrecy.
Napolitano: “I’m pretty transparent, but given these circumstances, the information, the type of information they wanted wasn’t raw data. They wanted interpreted data, which we haven’t done yet.’’
In 2011, a private company was interested in developing its own multi-million dollar turbine project. But instead of embracing it, EDC officials at the time saw it as a threat, according to internal emails obtained by The Hummel Report.
“Disaster. It will destroy the EBEC project – not only the money we put in, but the model trying to be developed, for multi-municipal projects,” wrote Julian Dash, who headed the agency’s Renewable Energy Fund, but has since left EDC. The email was sent to director Keith Stokes in October 2011.
Katharine Flynn, another top EDC official who has since left the agency, sent an email to Stokes a month earlier, in September of 2011. “…You could look at it as we spent 200k (if that is what the money are) to leverage a $55 million investment.’’
But that’s not how other EDC officials looked at it. A year ago, EDC lobbied for a bill in the General Assembly that would have brought EBEC under its wing and would have allowed it to go out for financing of its own. It was part of a larger bill reorganizing EDC that died a quiet death as the 38 Studios debacle played out during the session.
EDC has provided the Hummel Report documents on EBEC but a spokeswoman said no one was still left at the agency who knew enough about EBEC for us to interview.
In an interview last month, Napolitano says the energy landscape and the focus of their project have both changed dramatically. She says EBEC will not ask for legislation again to come under EDC’s wing or to become a quasi-public agency of its own, which have been lightning rods for the critics. Instead it will become a non-profit agency.
And it will not rely on net metering.
Four years and $400,000 dollars later, the communities still have a long way to go to decide how to move forward. But Napolitano expects movement – one way or the other – this spring.
We asked her what you get for $403,000.
“Well when you consider the scale of the project, everything that we pay for is professional service, whether they be project manager, engineering or legal,” Napolitano said. “And this is a very complex project; we’ve only scratched the surface.”
Editor’s note: The Hummel Report has launched a monthly feature called The Hummel Spotlight, focusing on people and organizations making a difference in the community.