WOONSOCKET — The City Council Monday instructed the administration of Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt to conclude a deal with a North Kingstown company to build a network of solar farms that could yield an estimated $20 million in new revenue and energy savings for the city over 25 years.
The question now is whether the administration will carry out the wishes of the panel.
The mayor, who first expressed reservations about the procurement process months ago, remains noncommittal about striking a deal with Green Development LLC, the council’s favored bidder.
“This type of project is a very long-term commitment and you have to be certain when you make a commitment of this magnitude that you’re completely comfortable,” Baldelli-Hunt said. “I still have concerns pertaining to how certain respondents were chosen to be in the semifinals and some were disqualified.”
Council Vice President Jon Brien, the lead advocate for the renewable energy project, says the selection of Green Development was the result of a fair and transparent public solicitation that was informed by the expert advice of the Narragansett Bay Commission. One of the largest wastewater treatment authorities in the state, NBC is a significant consumer of alternative energy and employs staff members who offer free consulting advice to cities and towns who are thinking of doing the same.
Invoking the City Charter, Brien asserts that local bylaws compel the mayor to execute a deal with Green Development LLC, in compliance with the instructions embedded in a resolution approved by the council on a 5-0 vote Monday.
“The legislative branch has spoken,” Brien said. “They want it, and they want it because they’ve worked hard at it and it’s good for the city. If anyone’s against it they’re going to have to explain why.”
Green Development would erect solar panels at sites off Bourdon Boulevard, Aylesworth Avenue, Jillson Avenue and Manville Road to generate almost all the power needed to run school and municipal buildings, Brien said. The company, or another one that isn’t yet identified, will need an additional site, also not yet known, to develop more solar panels in order to meet the council’s goals of generating about 8.5 megawatts of power, the full amount needed for municipal energy independence.
At that level of production, Brien said the city could reap about $20 million over the life of a 25-year contract in the form of lease payments on city land, direct energy savings and state tax credits.
Brien maintains that the council – like the state legislature – has “co-equal” powers with the administrative branch to initiate development proposals. Likening the Green Development vote to the state legislature’s decision to decriminalize medical marijuana years ago, Brien said former Gov. Donald Carcieri wasn’t wild about the idea, but he was compelled to instruct the state Department of Business Regulation to embrace a regulatory framework for legal pot.
“That’s what’s going on here,” said Brien, a former House member.
A key stumbling block for the mayor, however, is that the sites where the solar panels would be erected were chosen by Green Development LLC in an open-ended bidding process that let potential suitors decide which locations were most feasible. Now Baldelli-Hunt questions whether all the bidders were competing on a level playing field. She’s advocating for a new round of bids in which the sites the city wants to see developed as solar installations are identified ahead of time.
“The first thing I’ll do is I will look over their proposal closely and I will compare the locations they’re speaking of in this proposal to the other people who responded to see if they also made the responses in an RFP (request for proposals) to the same locations,” she said. “Then I will take into consideration the resolution that was passed...and we will have conversations with them to see what their thoughts are pertaining to the locations that were put forth. After discussions with them I’ll have to make a determination with them as to how I would like to move forward or what direction I think we should go in.”
But Councilman James Cournoyer, a member of the “green energy” subcommittee that led the procurement process, said there was nothing nefarious or opaque about the open-ended bid process. On the contrary, the whole idea was to allow professionals in the field of renewables to exercise as much flexibility as possible and make an independent determination about what was feasible.
“We specifically left it open-ended for two reasons,” said Cournoyer. “One, we wanted the experts in the industry to determine the right locations, to think outside the box, to come up with ideas.”
The second reason, Cournoyer said, was that the RFP instructed bidders to consider private as well as public property. The subcommittee thought it would be simpler for potential bidders to decide on their own if certain private parcels were feasible rather than have the city get involved in negotiations associated with property it doesn’t own.
But Cournoyer says the mayor will still get another bite at the apple if she believes there are additional, specific sites that should be considered for solar panels.
In order to reach the desired 8.5 megawatt threshold, the council intends to seek a new round of bids to develop a portion of River’s Edge Athletic Complex as a solar installation, said Cournoyer, but if the administration has ideas for other sites, the council is eager to hear them.
“If the administration has any additional locations in mind, we’ll add them to the resolution,” he said. “We’re not going to throw out all the work we’ve done to this point. Green Development submitted a responsible offer to the RFP that’s already gone out and we’ll move forward with them on one path and separately move forward with an RFP for additional sites.”
Seven companies originally responded to the city’s RFP for green energy projects, but three were summarily dismissed on advice from NBC, which concluded that they did not properly respond to the bid specifications.
The four qualifying responses came from Kearsarge Energy of Boston; Southern Sky Renewable Energy of Rhode Island, located in Warwick; Green Development LLC of North Kingstown; and Amaresco Solar Energy Solutions, an international company whose nearest regional office is located in Maryland.
If Green Development sounds familiar, it may be because some of the company’s proposals in other communities have generated plenty of publicity – not all of it favorable. The same company presently proposes a 462.5-foot-tall wind turbine in neighboring North Smithfield that is generating howls of protest from neighbors on Old Smithfield Road. The company has also initiated litigation against Coventry and Exeter in disputes over those communities’ efforts to regulate its renewable energy projects. Eco News RI also reported last week that Coventry has ordered Green Development to stop work on a solar installation that company had under construction without the town’s authorization.
Though the council has discussed the project extensively during a series of work sessions in the past, members sent the project to Baldelli-Hunt to conclude a deal with Green Development with virtually no discussion on Monday. In addition to Brien and Cournoyer, Council President Dan Gendron, Councilwoman Denise Sierra and Councilman David Soucy all voted in favor of doing so. Councilman John Ward, who was on the green energy subcommittee, was absent from the meeting, and the council’s seventh seat is vacant pending a special election on Aug. 6.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo