Rhode Island is letting a potential new industry slip away because the mishmash of local regulations surrounding wind turbines discourages installers, say two executives in the industry.
When the R.I. Economic Development Corporation unveiled its “Roadmap for Advancing the Green Economy” in early February, one of the chief crafters of the plan noted a particularly troubling roadblock. Eric Offenberg, chief technical officer at Middletown’s rTerra Renewable Energy Partners and a partner at wind turbine installation firm SGE, said that the state’s 39 cities and towns all have different ways of treating onshore wind turbine applications. That leads to confusion in the marketplace, which deters companies specializing in the installation and maintenance of the turbines from locating in Rhode Island.
Offenberg called on the state to draft a model ordinance so that the process of installing a turbine would be largely the same from community to community. The thought captured the attention of Bob Chew, wind-business president of Wilton, Conn.-based Alteris Renewables, who has long found the tangle of regulations an inhibitor to growing his business in Rhode Island.
“If somebody calls up I can tell them in five minutes whether it’s a good site for wind, but then we have to get in the car, drive down and sit down with the building or zoning official and see if we can put one in that town,” Chew said.
That costs time and money and often marks just the start of a potentially months-long process involving multiple committees, filing fees and staff reviews. And there is no guarantee at the end of the process that the municipality will sign off on the turbine.
Chew said over the years he has helped property owners secure more than 150 zoning variances for renewable energy systems. Still, the often dense zoning codes force him to learn new rules on a case-by-case basis. Chew pointed to Portsmouth, a typically “wind-friendly” town that itself erected a wind turbine. But a provision tucked deep in the zoning ordinances provided special rules for wind turbines in the downtown area where Clements’ Marketplace wanted to install a turbine.
A provision treating that area of town differently than other parts made erecting a turbine at Clements’ Marketplace difficult and the applicant dropped the idea. That cost Chew a business opportunity and ultimately, Chew said, hurt the state.