By RUSS OLIVO
WOONSOCKET – Consultants from the Narragansett Bay Commission are telling city officials they could save millions over the next 25 years by developing a solar farm to generate renewable energy to power municipal buildings.
In an initiative spearheaded by the City Council, the NBC team reviewed seven bids from developers of alternative energy infrastructure that the city received after issuing a request for proposals in April.
Only four of the respondents met the city’s minimum bid specifications. But Thomas P. Uva, NBC’s staff director of environmental science and compliance, concluded that the city could offset energy costs by at least $10.1 million to as much as $19.2 million if it makes a deal with one of the remaining suitors. The figures represent a combination of direct energy savings, revenues from the lease of land and payments in lieu of taxes, according to Uva.
The four qualifying responses to the RFP were submitted by 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.
The council will take up a resolution instructing the administration of Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt to award a contract to one of those vendors on Nov. 5, according to Council Vice President Jon Brien.
It was Brien who encouraged the council to issue an open call for renewable energy proposals, a move he says grew out of the contemplated sale of water to Invenergy Thermal Development for the company’s planned Clear River Energy Center in Burrillville – nearly two years ago. Much to the consternation of the administration, the council rejected the $18 million, 20-year deal to provide turbine-cooling water for the Chicago-based company’s proposed gas-powered cogeneration plant.
“I wanted to find a better alternative,” said Brien. “If we could realize savings instead, we’re being responsible stewards of the environment while also saving the taxpayers money.”
Because the responses to the renewable energy RFP are highly technical, the council asked the Narragansett Bay Commission to analyze them, a service it has provided at no cost to other municipalities and agencies in the state, according to Brien. NBC, which runs a massive sewer treatment facility in Providence, also employs a network of solar farms and wind turbines (three are visible from I-95 when passing through the city) that generate more than half its own energy needs.
In addition to Uva, NBC’s Environmental, Safety and Technical Assistance Manager James McCaughey and Sustainability Engineer Barry Wenskowicz summarized their findings in a six-page memorandum to the council last month. Representatives of NBC also met with the panel for a workshop on Tuesday to discuss them.
In a phone interview, Uva said a principal goal of the NBC consulting team was to recast the seven responses to the RFP in a way that allows the city to make an apples-to-apples comparison of the competing offers.
Most of the offers involve developing solar panel farms – on city-owned property, but not necessarily within its borders. Two of the companies, Ameresco and Southern Sky, are proposing to erect the facilities on land adjacent to reservoirs from which the Woonsocket Water Department draws water, in North Smithfield. Another, Kearsarge, isn’t saying where it would erect the farm, except that it wouldn’t be on city-owned land. Green Development says the facility would be located in Woonsocket, but it’s not saying where.
All the qualifying offers are built on one type of renewable energy – solar – though Green Development has informally held out an option to include at least one wind turbine as part of the mix, said Uva.
When the four firms’ responses are adjusted to make for a level-playing-field comparison, Ameresco’s emerges as the most generous, promising to deliver about $19.2 million in combined energy savings, lease payments and taxes to the city over a 25-year period. Green Development is the runner-up, with roughly $16.2 million. Southern Sky and Kearsarge are roughly tied for third, projecting $10.4 million and $10.1 million, respectively.
Whenever municipalities sign on for such long-term contracts, there are inherent risks, according to UVA. In a period of two-plus decades, there could be unforeseen changes in the regulatory framework or innovations in technology that alter the fiscal calculus that’s observable today.
But Uva is an enthusiastic advocate for renewable energy and openly encourages the city to take a close look at the offers – and pick one.
“I wouldn’t be doing this for NBC if I didn’t think it was a good investment,” said Uva. “You could save in the long term by doing these kinds of projects.”
NBC, said UVA, generates about 65 percent of its own energy with two arrays of wind turbines, including one in Coventry, and a solar farm in Richmond. The commission, which treats a good deal of the sewer effluent originating from the Greater Providence area, continues to look for additional opportunities to generate renewable energy, aiming for 100 percent self-sufficiency.
Total self-sufficiency doesn’t mean the energy is free – there are still costs. But much of the energy NBC produces is sold back to National Grid, which provides NBC with a credit against its consumption costs, producing significant savings.
Council President Dan Gendron says he finds the responses to the RFPs encouraging and is eager to move the process forward.
On Monday, he said, the council will consider a resolution to accept NBC’s findings and schedule detailed, in-person presentations for from representatives of each of the four qualifying bidders.
“This is clearly an opportunity to generate significant new revenues from renewable energy,” said Gendron. “It’s clean energy – the kind that everybody wants – and we stand to make up to $19 million from it.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo