The Hummel Report

Investigative Reports That Get Results

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Up and Running

Five years in the making, Rhode Island’s largest land-based wind farm is starting to generate electricity - and revenue - for its developer, the town of West Warwick and the Narragansett Bay Commission. Over the summer we have followed the construction of 10 turbines in western Coventry, and one in Portsmouth. Jim Hummel also talks with developer Mark DePasquale about allegations that he was behind 11th-hour legislation in June that would benefit his bottom line - at the expense of ratepayers.

 

Click here for our previous report on this project.

 

SCRIPT:

This is not a job for anybody with a fear of heights.

More than 400 feet up, workers are heading into the homestretch assembling a one and a half megawatt wind turbine in western Coventry. A crane operator on the ground and a supervisor at the top work together to maneuver the blades into place. Each blade weighs nine tons and measures 134 feet. The fit has to be exact.

Last month, this and two other turbines nearby began providing all of the electricity the town of West Warwick will need to power its municipal buildings. The town’s taxpayers last year authorized borrowing $18 million to buy the three turbines.

Wind Energy Development, and its owner Mark DePasquale, is building a 10-turbine wind farm in Coventry. DePasquale also has put up a replacement turbine at the site in Portsmouth where failed equipment sat idle for years. He’ll soon begin selling electricity to the town.

The Narragansett Bay Commission, which in 2012 put up three of its own turbines on the Providence waterfront, has purchased another three in Coventry from Wind Energy Development, putting the Bay Commission well toward its goal of using entirely renewable energy for the agency’s power needs.

We first reported on the Coventry project earlier this year, when the company was laying the foundations for what would eventually be last month’s finished product.

It  hasn’t been the smoothest road for DePasquale - he has faced resistance from National Grid and ridden out numerous delays to get to where he is today. And at the end of this year’s General Assembly session he faced allegations he was trying to get special legislation passed tailored specifically to Wind Energy Development. More on that in a moment.

Critics doubted whether DePasquale could succeed at a land-based project this size, the first of its kind and scope in Rhode Island.

DePasquale: ``We needed to prove to National Grid that we can work with them and create a system. We sited the turbines responsibly and we had to show people that the economics do work and it’s a safe way to manufacture electric. We’re harvesting wind and making electric.’’

DePasquale has been a quick study on wind energy. He put up his first turbine  next to his own house in North Kingstown. He has visited other wind farms and travelled to Germany where the manufacturer, Vensys, is based.

Germany is where this shipment came from when it arrived in June at Quonset Point. The major components of 11 turbines came by ship. Each piece was unloaded and later staged in another part of the park - then moved, in the middle of the night, out to Coventry.

Watching the progress - and their investment: a delegation from West Warwick, including council members and Town Manager Fred Pressley.

DePasquale also brought a team over from Germany for the assembly of the turbines in Coventry.

DePasquale: ``We have a 10-year warranty on them, so they wanted to make sure they first batch that went up correctly.’’

We watched throughout the summer the delicate process of attaching blades to the nacelle that houses them. The first turbine took nearly two days to assemble. After that the construction moved more quickly.

DePasquale: ``Once you get a real vision of where to put the components, where to set, what’s the next move, it’s complicated, it’s technical, but it’s fairly routine. After you get the first one, everything follows the same.’’

The final stage of construction began with the crews fastening straps on the blades that allow the crane to hoist the assembly to its final resting places.

DePasquale: ``That’s probably the hardest part of the project is to get the blades parallel with the tower. The team’s very skilled, the team in the air is skilled, the crane operator has to be very precise because you have men inside. What’s difficult is you have over 150 studs, which are screws let’s call them, that have to line up with the holes exactly. So when you lift it off the ground, you have to pitch the turbines a little bit to line it all up’’

After the turbines go up there is six weeks of fine tuning. Ironically before the turbines can generate power that will go back into the system, National Grid has to energize the equipment to turn it on initially. That fires up the computers and allows the blades to be tested.

After 500 hours, crews will shut the turbines down temporarily and go in to check the components - literally the nuts and bolts. In Portsmouth DePasquale said he wanted to put up another - successful - turbine to help remove the perpetual sour taste taxpayers had looking at broken equipment for four years that they owned.

DePasquale: ``We go to many town meetings and everybody discusses the Portsmouth turbine.’’

Hummel: ``How it was the poster child for how not to do it?’’

DePasquale: ``How not to do it. How they break. Portsmouth, it was unfortunate. It was the technology, it was the gearbox.’’

Hummel: ``But you have confidence in that site?’’

DePasquale: ``The site’s a beautiful site.

Hummel: ``For wind.’’

DePasquale: ``The site’s a beautiful site for wind. We’re working with some of the neighbors in the area and we’ve made some adjustments. But the site is probably one of our best sites right now in Rhode Island for the wind.’’

DePasquale and Wind Energy Development made headlines at the end of the General Assembly with allegations that he was trying to have special legislation passed to reimburse him for some of the $12 million cost associated with upgrading lines running eight miles between this National Grid substation near Johnston’s Pond, west on Route 117 and ultimately to the site of the turbines.

DePasquale: `` The system in western Coventry for the amount of power that we put up was antiquated. It works right now for the houses that are out there but there’s no industry out there. So in Coventry we brought a circuit up from the substation directly to build the project. At that cost I don’t believe that National Grid or ratepayers would pay anything, which they haven’t paid anything. We paid 100 percent of the costs.’’

Article 18 of the state budget - which included changes for not only wind energy but other renewables like solar - suddenly became a hot potato and Speaker Nicholas Matiello ordered it yanked because of the controversy.

Hummel: ``Are you trying to get reimbursement for any part of that $12 million in lines that you laid?’’

DePasquale: ``Absolutely not.’’

Hummel: ``That was portrayed otherwise. Was that a misportrayal?’’

DePasquale: ``That was just totally wrong. At no time does the legislation that we were supporting, or National Grid…we paid 100 percent of it, it was a dedicated circuit.’’

DePasquale said identical legislation had been passed by the House and was next up on the Senate agenda a year ago when the General Assembly abruptly adjourned. He said the bill had the support of the state’s Office of Energy Resources - but that National Grid opposed it because it would penalize the company’s shareholders if it missed deadlines on projects.’’

DePasquale: ``It was good timing for the lobbyists for National Grid because it was the last week, so you couldn’t have asked for a better time to create this issue and create uncertainty for other people on the Senate side. And the bill was very very simple. It wasn’t directed out for me. It was legislation to clarify items that are out there right now for solar, for municipalities, so when you look at the true guts of the bill it had nothing to do within Mark DePasquale, Wind Energy Development, it had to do with the industry.’’

Depasquale says the state needs to come up with standard guidelines for wind projects. The head of OER tells The Hummel Report her office hopes to have those guidelines out by the end of the year.’’

DePasquale: ``Do we want a farmer with a hundred acres of solar panels on it when I can produce that with the same energy with three turbines. You know those are the things they need to decided.’’

Hummel: ``So this is uncharted waters for the state.’’

DePasquale: ``It’s unchartered waters.’’

Hummel: ``Do you think you’re pulling them or pushing them?’’

DePasquale: ``I think they’re following and watching and I think everybody wanted to see what happened. And I think the jury’s out right now and we’ve got to see what happens.’’

In Coventry, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.