Portsmouth council candidates tilt over wind turbine
PORTSMOUTH — As the blades of the broken Portsmouth wind turbine sit motionless, the device's woes have become a hot topic among candidates for Town Council. Disagreement has surfaced over what Portsmouth should do next and who's to blame for the breakdowns. Democrat Jim Seveney says the first priority should be getting the turbine running again. "The town has engaged the best wind turbine expertise in the country to investigate the cause of the problem," he said. "Once we have the facts, then we can move forward with corrective action. It's a complex task, and taking some time to complete which has fueled much speculation and posturing." He said the council had been handling the situation well "up until this past meeting where the tone turned negative. This was unnecessary and unfortunate. It’s a premature rush to judgment by a few folks using 20/20 hindsight to assign blame." Mr. Seveney supported the decision to bring the turbine to Portsmouth. "The fact that the turbine has suffered an apparent failure of a complex mechanical component does not reflect negatively on the decision process, nor the analysis that supported the decision." Republican Judi Staven says she was opposed to the turbine project in the first place but believes the council is doing the right thing by undertaking a thorough study. "There are some who would like us to purchase and install another gear box without looking into why it failed in the first place. From the info the council has received, this will cost at least $600,000. I am not willing to spend this kind of money unless I am assured that this will resolve the problem." "It's clearly apparent that the 2006/2008 council did not give sufficient attention to providing the necessary assurance that the town was covered in the event of failure and parts were covered by warranties. This failure has severe financial implications to the town." Independent Allen Shers, a member of the town Economic Development Committee when the turbine was being studied, said the process was thorough and diligent. Since then, though, the turbine has been hit not only by mechanical woes but by lower kilowatt payback from National Grid. Also looming is the need to save perhaps $100,000 a year to cover the expected $1.7 million cost to refurbish the turbine after its 20-year working life. For these reasons, "I thing the town should look at possibly privatizing the turbine ... sharing both the costs and revenue with a partner. I don't think the town should really be in the turbine business." For now, it is vital to get it running again, Mr. Shers said — "Like a used car, it has more value if it's running." And a top priority for the town should be going back to National Grid, a company that promotes its embrace of green energy, for a better kilowatt deal. He said it is disturbing to see politicians dividing on party lines over the issue. "We are where we are with this and choosing sides helps nobody ... We need to get together and come up with answers ... That's why I'm running as an independent." Democrat Leonard Katzman said the town should take steps to get the turbine back online without delay as soon as the recommendations are provided. " The path forward must be based on facts and data, and not political posturing or pandering." He said he does not agree entirely with the way the council has handled the situation. "The council could have acted sooner to put in place readiness management of the known turbine maintenance lifespan issue. Proper planning may have mitigated some of the downtime, though he does agree with having the administrator conduct a study. "Unfortunately, some members of the council are now playing a finger-pointing blame game for obvious political reasons. Such behavior is unseemly, maligns the good name of decent Portsmouth citizen committee volunteers and harms the town’s ability to have open reasonable discussions on how best to resolve this complex issue." He said he "absolutely" supports the decision to build the turbine. "The turbine has been running in the black, cash-flow positive to the town every year including this past year with all the downtime. To date the turbine has netted over $400,000 in profits to the town after all expenses and loan payments. Even with the repairs we now face, positive future net revenue is still anticipated ... Disparaging the turbine because of the repairs we now face would be like lamenting we ever left the horse and buggy behind the first time our car needed transmission work." Independent David Gleason said that photos from a report prepared by the maintenance contractor clearly show metal chips in the oil and some damage to the internal gears. This leads him to fear that merely replacing the gearbox "will not resolve the current problem for future reliability … especially if a failure analysis of the current situation is not undertaken." "I think that the existing Town Council has taken a wait and see approach and avoided a knee jerk response to jump in and buy one (or even two) new gearboxes, as has been proposed … While none of us want to look at an idle wind turbine, I think that this Council has not rushed to a decision, and I believe this was the proper decision. " "I am a big supporter of "green" energy but only if it makes financial sense … I question whether this wind turbine was economically justifiable for the price the town paid, even if it was potentially able to run reliably for 20 years. Additionally, I was skeptical of buying from an unknown manufacturer with no real guarantee. There is something to be said for buying a brand name … at a higher cost, which may have turned out to be cheaper in the long run." Democrat Fred Faerber said that an option to consider is a public/private partnership rather than the town going it alone on costlyf repairs."The overriding issue is how to repay the remaining $2 million-plus bond ... The wind power industry is being adversely impacted by the failure of this windmill so a large windmill manufacturer might be willing to work a deal with the town. My sense is that, unfortunately, the best the town can do going forward is to break even but at least that avoids having the taxpayers assume the remaining bond payments." Mr. Faerber said he still supports the decision to proceed with a wind turbine but, "As a CPA the only thing I might have done differently when the decision was being made was to evaluate the provider's financial statements to gain some assessment of their ability to continue as a going concern." Republican Paul Kesson said he did not support the bond in the first place — "I do not believe the town should be in the power generation business. "If there is a way out of this failed project that minimizes the risk I would support it. Our current design using an upgraded gearbox as I understand it has a warranty that costs $81,000" per year. "That said, 30 months or even double that prediction to 60 months, can the town withstand in it's budget three more failures? The answer is no. All options need to be considered — "Some sort of communications tower adapted to the existing structure" might provide "a path forward to generate revenue at minimum risk." "What troubles me is that again RIEDC invested in a project ... and did nothing that I can see to steer the town away from a product from a startup company." The council needs a sound business plan that Mr. Kesson said he thinks is still missing. "Projects like this, because of cost and limited revenue have probably a one time chance of being successful, unfortunately Portsmouth will have to try this one twice, and probably on the backs of the taxpayers." Democrat Molly Magee said it's vital for Portsmouth to "take the time to do an in-depth analysis on the causes of the failure and the potential alternatives to move forward. I think it was inappropriate, not helpful, and divisive for certain members of the Town Council to attempt to attribute blame for the problem to the Portsmouth Economic Development Committee. Asking the PEDC to be involved in the analysis going forward is appropriate, but to brand them with blame is not. For full disclosure, I am a current member of the PEDC. " She said she voted for the turbine in the first place and said the process the lead to the original decision was open and in-depth. Republican Liz Pedro said she, like others on there council, is awaiting recommendations from the town administrator." Although I would like to see the turbine running and successful, it would be premature to make any decisions before reviewing all pertinent information ... We must understand the implications of replacing gearboxes every three years. We cannot afford to make costly knee-jerk decisions that will affect the taxpayers who approved the bond in 2007." She said she supports alternative energy but was not convinced after listening to presentations in 2006 "that this project would be cost effective. Now as a council member, I have my concerns and need to receive and digest the final report mentioned above. I would also like to receive a report from the PEDC, Republican Keith Hamilton said the upcoming report will help guide "the best option going forward" and said he believes the council is right to pursue "a careful and thoughtful review of the status of the turbine ... I did support the installation of the turbine but feel that we should have not gone with lowest bidder. The lowest bidder, who has never built a turbine, was not the best choice, but hindsight is always 20/20. We need to do a better job as a town and state in doing a better job of selecting our contractors." Democrat Robert Church said, "I believe the first thing needed is being done right now with a true industry expert finding the true cause of the failure. Portsmouth still has a $2 million note that we are still paying regardless of what happens next."
"In general I approve of the way the council has handled it minus the blame game that comes around election time."
He added that the committee that did the initial turbine work did so with "the best information available at the time."
Democrat John Blaess said he thinks the council is on the right track, "however the recent negativity brought forward by the majority vote of the council is troubling. We need to respect those that worked countless hours on this project. Going forward, the council needs to put aside judgments and work together for a solution to this complex problem."
He said he voted for the turbine — "It was a symbol for clean energy, and until it broke down was a point of pride for most of the citizens in Portsmouth. Future decisions must be based on facts, repair costs, and proper maintenance to make sure we don't have this situation occur again."
Democrat Michael Buddemeyer said, "We need to first get the answers as to why it has failed ... Until then we can not make a decision, regardless of the rhetoric.
He believes the council was doing the right things, "Then, instead of pushing for a informed decision and resolution of the issue, the issue then became the process of why we decided to have this turbine in the first place and that was wrong and misguided."
He did support, and still does, the turbine. "The green technology of the turbine is a good path and the process on how the town decided to put one here was through much study and diligence and I am proud of the efforts of the PEDC."