New wind turbine plan crops up in Riverhead Town Hall

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | Installing a wind turbine in Laurel in 2010.

A proposed 275-foot high wind turbine on the grounds of the Riverhead Sewer District property on Riverside Drive still doesn’t have support from a consensus of Riverhead Town Board members — despite new numbers that say it would pay for itself five years sooner than originally projected.

But if a private company wanted to build the turbine, and then sell energy back to the town, board members seemed to support that move, which would lessen the financial risk to taxpayers.

The town’s sewer department superintendent, Michael Reichel, has long been pushing for the turbine, which he said would provide 42 percent of the energy at the sewer plant initially, and 21 percent after a state-mandated $18 million upgrade takes effect, since the upgrade will increase power use.

The town hasn’t begun construction of that upgrade, but is required to have it operating by January of 2014, and it’s expected to take two years to build, officials have said.

The wind turbine was initially expected to cost about $1.6 million, but a New York Power Authority review of a town-commissioned study that produced that estimate said it would cost $2.6 million.

The original estimates also found the turbine would pay for itself in saved energy costs after 17 years, which board members last year said was too long.

Now, Mr. Reichel and town finance administrator Bill Rothaar have come up with new numbers, which they say shows that the turbine can pay for itself after 12 years. They outlined these new numbers at Thursday’s Town Board work session.

Under the latest proposal, the town would pay for the turbine using its own surplus funds, rather than borrowing the money from NYPA, which would result is less interest costs. Also, a $470,000 state Environmental Facilities Corps grant the town received for the project last year now has been increased to $750,000, and the Long Island Power Authority also is offering a $200,000 rebate for the project, Mr. Reichel said.

But board members still weren’t convinced Thursday.

“Because this is the public’s money, I need a guarantee this windmill will last 15 years, because it doesn’t pay for itself for 12 years,” Supervisor Sean Walter said.

Councilman George Gabrielsen said there’s no way to predict how long any machine will last,

“I don’t know anything that won’t break down in 18 years. I have a problem speculating with taxpayers dollars,” he said.

Mr. Gabrielsen also said the surplus funds could be used for other projects, such as the $18 million sewer upgrade.

Mr. Walter said that unless the town can get grants to reimburse the cost of that upgrade, the tax rate in the sewer district will increase by 544 percent.

After a straw poll of the board failed to get a simple yes or no from most of the board members, much less a consensus on proceeding with the turbine, Mr. Reichel asked if board members would be in favor of letting a private entity install the turbine on sewer district property and then sell the energy to the town.

That had support, since the contractor would be taking the risk, although Mr. Rothaar said the savings to the town would be lessened if it was done this way.

Officials said they will continue to look into the proposal and get more information.

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