Electricity group pushes solar for municipal buildings|Not convinced wind farm, cable will happen any time soon

Mon, 01/19/2009 - 6:00am
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The Electric Utility Task Group urged the town Monday to charge ahead with studying the installation of solar panels and a wind turbine, even as a private company plans an off-shore wind farm with a tie-in to the island.

Saying they had little faith the wind farm’s pledged island-to-mainland electric cable would be completed by its scheduled 2012 finish date, members recommended a series of steps the Town Council take to lower electric rates.

Chief among them was the suggestion that the Town Council apply to the state’s Renewable Energy Fund for $512,000 to construct solar panels at the school, Town Hall and Water Company. The group also suggested the council submit a separate grant asking for $50,000 to undertake studies to craft a request for proposals to install a wind turbine at a yet-to-be-determined location.

But whether the town even qualifies to make such requests remains up in the air. Group member Chris Warfel said officials at the fund, part of the state Economic Development Corporation, have provided him conflicting answers. One says that because island electric customers do not pay into the fund the island cannot apply. Another official, Warfel said, says nothing expressly prohibits the island from applying.

And who would own the systems and buy the electricity remains a question. The Electric Utility Task Group suggested the town ask its solicitor to study the viability of creating a nonprofit company or nonprofit cooperative to own the generators and sell the electricity.

The entity, members said, could also have the added benefit of owning or managing the electric cable from the island to the mainland proposed by wind farm developer Deepwater Wind. And if the entity owned renewable energy generators on the island, it could use the cable to sell excess power to the mainland electric grid.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t become our own independent generator,” First Warden Kim Gaffett said. “So what if they’re building their own.”

Hope for federal money

The state is working on creating a list of projects to submit to the federal government as part of an economic stimulus plan proposed by President-elect Barack Obama, and island officials hope a Block Island solar panel project will make it onto the list.

At the request of Gaffett, Warfel will provide the town a template for a request for proposals to build the solar panels. The town, in turn, plans to submit the request to the state that then will submit a master list to the federal government. Warfel, owner of Entech Engineering, said he would likely bid on the solar project, but the request he will provide to the town would be boilerplate. He did, however, ask the town to decide if it wanted its solar panels to include battery backups.

“That’s probably the critical decision the town has to make,” Warfel said.

Currently, the Town Hall has no backup power system and batteries could provide electricity during an emergency such as a hurricane. But they would add $2 to $2.50 a watt to the overall cost. Gaffett said the Town Council would take the matter of batteries under advisement.

Other business

• The Electric Utility Task Group’s grant application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture appears dead. In June the town submitted a $3.9 million grant application to fund initiatives to help low-income residents conserve energy, construct a 600-kilowatt wind turbine and outfit municipal buildings with solar power.

The group expected to hear back from the USDA in November but has not heard anything and Everett Shorey said he thought that constituted a rejection.

• The group held off electing a chair after no one volunteered. Members said they would make due without a chair for the time being.

• The group approved its schedule for the next five months with meetings scheduled for February 2, March 2, April 13, May 11 and June 8, all at 10 a.m. at Town Hall.