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Kingston’s turbines are a signpost to energy independence

New turbine proof that municipal wind power is both possible and profitable

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Mary O’Donnell and town officials joined forces to build four utility-sized turbines in Kingston. The town’s turbine is called Independence.

KINGSTON - In 1776, with the ink on the Declaration of Independence barely dry, shipbuilders on Kingston’s Jones River built a vessel called Independence to fight for liberty. Other American warships would later take the same name.

More than two centuries later, during negotiations with a company to build a wind turbine on town land, Kingston officials said they wanted to keep the naming rights to the generator. The company’s officials expressed surprise, but the town had a name reserved for the latest symbol of local determination: Independence.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

One of the five wind turbines in Kingston.

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Today you can’t miss the town’s state-of-the-art power-generating turbine, with its spinning blades reaching 417 feet at their apex, and the shiny steel generator dominating a stretch of Route 3 from its perch on top of the town’s capped landfill.

The Independence is one of five wind turbines recently erected in Kingston. Four are 2-megawatt, utility-sized turbines - the new municipal machine plus three built on neighboring land owned by developer Mary O’Donnell. Together these generators will produce enough electricity for up to 10,000 households, approximately twice the number of homes in Kingston.

The fifth is a 100-kilowatt turbine built by the state Department of Transportation to power the Kingston MBTA station’s layover yard.

Town officials see their turbine’s roadside position as a signpost telling other communities that wind power generation is both possible and profitable.

“When they realize what Kingston did, and they realize how much revenue it will bring, and it’s clean and renewable, and good for their children, they’re going to say, ‘Maybe we should take a look at it,’ ’’ said Mark Beaton, a local restaurant owner and selectman who also heads the town’s Green Energy Committee.

Between its wind generator and a new solar-power project also located at the landfill, the town is expecting to bring in $750,000 to $1 million a year from renewable energy. The turbine is scheduled to start producing energy - and earning money - this month, depending on how quickly NStar can connect it to the grid.

The town began its march to a blade-spinning skyline some seven years ago when the Green Energy Committee focused on saving energy in town facilities, operations, and vehicles. When town leaders made the leap to generating renewable energy through wind power, the effort involved not only writing a favorable bylaw and getting the support of Town Meeting, but also persuading the state Legislature to change power rate-paying laws to benefit municipal projects.

Kingston has plowed ahead with its wind power project through a treacherous political landscape. The high-profile Cape Wind project still faces opposition after 10 years of regulatory scrutiny. Ambitious proposals in Plymouth and Wareham face vocal neighborhood opposition. Milton was sued last year by a private golf club in neighboring Quincy when the town sought to put up a turbine that might mar the view of the club’s members. The case is pending.

In Falmouth, neighbors say their health has been seriously undermined by a noisy turbine; wind-power backers say the problem is a defective machine. In Duxbury, Kingston’s neighbor, opponents hope to stop the exploratory process before a proposal to build a turbine is made.

Some communities have been more receptive. In Scituate, officials are expecting the arrival of their 400-foot turbine intended to power municipal buildings and facilities, saving the town $4.4 million in energy costs over 15 years. In Quincy, the Planning Board recently held a hearing on a joint Quincy-Boston proposal to build a turbine on Moon Island in Boston Harbor.

In Kingston, wind-power backers say they are ready to churn air into electricity because of the town’s determination to have the renewable-energy generators.

“It was a serious commitment,’’ Beaton said recently. “We had to call in favors. We had to go to the legislators. We had to have our attorneys involved.’’

Hard work by volunteers was combined with state backing, federal tax credits, help from legislators, and favorable sites to make the dream a reality. The volunteer work included years of outreach to sell the idea to the public, including sounding a patriotic theme.

“We called our turbine the Independence,’’ Beaton said, “because it makes Kingston independent from imported fossil fuels.’’

O’Donnell sounded a similar theme.

She said she lives near million-dollar homes. “These are people who have money and care about social justice and whether we become producers of renewable energy, or continue to send kids home in body bags’’ from wars fought to protect fuel sources.

In addition to making the case for renewable energy and independence from foreign oil, wind power backers persuaded residents their project made good sense economically as well.

“We had to show them the money,’’ Beaton said. “The town bought into it. We didn’t have many people who said, ‘not in my backyard.’ ’’

With only a small investment of its own funds, the town used state grants to explore its landfill site and the feasibility of making wind power pay at the location. Based on the study, the town opted to lease the construction and operation to a private company, C&D Construction.

Kingston intends to use its new revenue stream for more energy-saving and renewable-energy projects. Plans call for redesigning the town’s transfer station to make recycling easier; buying electric vehicles to replace low-mileage town pickups; and creating a fund to help residents invest in energy-conservation improvements such as storm windows, efficient furnaces, solar panels, and wind spires.

Kingston’s determination positioned the town to be in the first wave of communities to qualify under the state’s Green Communities Act, town planner Tom Bott said.

One of the requirements to qualify is approving a local bylaw to allow wind turbines “by right,’’ Bott said. That zoning means a builder has the right to build certain types of projects - wind power generators in this case - in designated parts of town.

“We develop the criteria and the Planning Board reviews the site plan,’’ Bott said. “The easier the permitting path is, the more proposals. The more complicated, the fewer. We’ve seen the fruit of that.’’

“By right’’ permitting is a lower bar than the special permit process required by many other communities, which includes broad notification obligations and invites potential opponents into the hearing process. Yet few Kingston residents complained of being left in the dark, Bott said.

In addition to new local rules, the town pressed legislators to approve a change in a state law called “net metering’’ to enable turbine projects to make enough money from the wind energy they produce to pay back the costs of their construction.

Pushed by state Representative Tom Calter of Kingston and the Senate’s president, Therese Murray, the change requires utilities to pay for municipal energy at the retail rate, the same rate the company charges its customers, a considerably higher rate than wholesale price. Currently, the change gives the town 4 cents more on each kilowatt of energy it produces.

“The numbers jump off the page,’’ Beaton said.

Without the change, Bott agreed, the payback period for the town turbine based on the wholesale price was “brutal.’’

Kingston’s long push also made O’Donnell’s project possible.

“I just jumped on their coattails,’’ she said. Since her land is adjacent to the town’s project site, she simply piggybacked on its wind feasibility study.

The years of informational meetings and educational outreach efforts paid off when officials asked Town Meeting to expand Kingston’s wind power district to include O’Donnell’s property, a former sand and gravel removal site where an ambitious affordable-housing project fell through. Town Meeting voters responded with a rare unanimous vote of approval.

“It’s a very green-minded town,’’ O’Donnell said.

Kingston also agreed to make use of the change in the net metering law to buy all of the electricity from O’Donnell’s project, sell it to the grid at the higher retail price awarded to municipalities, and return almost all of the differential to O’Donnell. The higher retail rate for her green energy enables O’Donnell to pay off her project’s estimated $12 million investment.

O’Donnell also credited the federal program that underwrites 30 percent of development costs for both wind and solar energy projects through either tax credits or upfront grants. State study grants and loan guarantees for renewable-energy projects help, too.

“This is a great illustration of a private project and a public project taking advantage of tools we provide to aid communities in renewable-energy generation,’’ said Mark Sylvia, director of the state’s Green Communities Division.

Beaton makes no apology for government’s involvement in promoting green energy, arguing that it was big public investments that made fossil fuel generation and nationwide power distribution possible in the last century.

“The government built the power grid,’’ he said. And that year-round power source put an end to his grandfather’s business of cutting ice from the ponds.

“Now we’re at another crossroads,’’ Beaton said. “Our future is not the fossil fuels, whether it comes from Canada or not. We have to do things differently in the next century.’’

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.
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