Big hurdles hinder small state's wind ambitions

New England needs new electricity sources and has some of the highest electricity rates in the nation. Wind is free and abundant along the coastline. And unlike fossil fuels, wind turbines do not produce the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

All of those factors were behind Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri's pledge nearly two years ago to bring wind power to a state where there is just one operating wind turbine. His goal was to get 15% of the state's electrical power from wind by 2011 — which would require about 100 turbines.

Several major challenges now stand in the way of the small state's big plans.

Among them: No one has decided where to put a wind farm, it's not clear how the project will be paid for, and public opposition — a major wild card — is unknown, according to Carcieri's top energy adviser, Andrew Dzykewicz.

Still, Dzykewicz is hopeful Rhode Island will be getting a large portion of its energy from wind by sometime after 2012.

Hoping to stabilize electricity costs and increase supply, Carcieri in January 2006 announced an energy plan that eventually included measures such as using hydropower, reforming the state's electric market, reducing state government's energy consumption and promoting the use of wind power. Later, he said he thought the state could reach the wind goal around the time his term ends in 2011.

This spring, his administration proposed building about 100 offshore wind turbines in Narragansett Bay, enough to power about 175,000 homes. The only major wind turbine in the state is at Portsmouth Abbey, a monastery and school.

Wind power generates less than one megawatt of electricity in Rhode Island, a tiny blip compared to the national leader, Texas, which has enough wind turbines to churn out almost 4,000 megawatts, according to the American Wind Energy Association, an industry group.

While Carcieri's administration has made some progress, it's been slow going.

"We won't have the blades turning by the time he's gone," Dzykewicz said.

Dzykewicz said he anticipates the state could have an offshore wind farm in the next five to seven years. But even that could be too optimistic.

Across the border in Massachusetts, opponents of a plan to build 130 wind turbines off Cape Cod in Nantucket Sound have stymied the Cape Wind project for more than six years because of fears that it could it could spoil views of the water and cause a hazard for boaters.

With fishing and tourism also key industries in Rhode Island, a similar proposal for an offshore wind farm could face similar opposition here.

No other state has built an offshore wind farm, forcing Rhode Island's government to invent the process nearly from scratch. One of the state's main environmental regulatory bodies, the Coastal Resources Management Council, has not even decided what it requires from prospective wind power developers.

The state also hasn't settled on a basic question: Where to put wind turbines.

Earlier this year, Dzykewicz's office assembled a panel of wind power advocates, environmentalists and others to whittle down the list of promising locations. It met four times, then decided it did not have enough information to make any decisions.

Panel members including Matt Auten, an advocate for Environment Rhode Island, a non-profit group that lobbies for tighter anti-pollution rules, praised Carcieri for seeking community input, but said picking wind farm sites is impossible until they know the environmental impact.

"The 'where' question is very important" if Carcieri wants to avoid Cape Wind-like delays, Auten said.

That question now falls to Dzykewicz, who said his office will probably try to get permits for several areas and see which are acceptable to regulators.

Permitting alone will take at least two years, Dzykewicz said. Once they're secured, Carcieri's office must then find a developer and backers to build and fund the project, a process expected to take several months.

At least two developers and several finance firms have said they are interested.

In September, New York-based Allco Renewable Energy Group, a wind power development firm, proposed building up to 338 wind turbines off Westerly, Block Island and Little Compton. The firm expects it could build the project by 2010 or 2011, said Jim Wavle, Allco's managing director.

"It can happen, without a doubt, but it's up to the state and the stakeholders to either embrace this or not," he said.

Developer Bluewater Wind has also signaled interest. But before going forward, it would have to show investors it has a long-term contract with a utility willing to buy its power, said Erich Stephens, who's heading the Rhode Island project.

"The problem in New England, in part, is that there's been no utility that's willing to step up to the plate," he said.

Some wind power advocates have pushed for lawmakers to force electricity distributors like National Grid, the state's dominant distributor, to buy renewable energy at a premium. A National Grid spokesman said the firm supports renewable energy, but it believes too much is uncertain to make promises now.

Carcieri's office attempted to solve the problem by asking state lawmakers to approve the Rhode Island Power Authority, a government entity authorized to buy renewable energy and sell it to customers.

Lawmakers did not approve the proposal because they had concerns about making the state a power dealer, said Larry Berman, a spokesman for House Speaker William Murphy. He said they may revisit the idea in January.