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Mass. wind projects hitting turbulence; setbacks for green energy

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Wind power is all the rage in Massachusetts, which has invested nearly $6 million in projects since 2010, and across the country, where President Obama touted its importance during the first presidential debate, but a review of wind power projects in the state reveals these projects are facing numerous problems from mechanical failures to lower-than-forecast energy savings.

New wind turbines are regularly sprouting up in Massachusetts, touted by Gov. Deval Patrick as proof that the heart of the clean energy revolution lies here. They are paid for partly through a surcharge on consumers' electric bills.

The clean energy revolution is sometimes not living up to its promise, as seen in the wind turbine at Forbes Park in Chelsea. It's been idle for almost three years, installed as part of a high-end green condominium development, which is also at a standstill.

"Absolutely it's frustrating to see it not moving. And we're hopeful that it will get spinning again soon," said Andy Brydges of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which invests money collected from electric bill surcharges in clean energy projects around the state.

"Why isn't that turbine moving?" FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet asked.

"The whole development isn't moving. It was a real estate development that was meant to be a green development," Brydges said.

The failed development comes with a public cost. The Chelsea project received $500,000 in 2007 from a state trust funded by the electric bill surcharges.

"Was that a waste of money?" Beaudet asked.

"I don't think so. I think if you look at all the money we've spent on wind, we're getting a very good dollar-per-kilowatt hour return on our investment. It's too bad, and hopefully that project will come around if the housing market rebounds, and it'll get restarted and prove to be a viable project in the long term. So it's an unfortunate, but we hope a temporary situation," Brydges said.

Brydges points to more than 50 wind turbines operating in the state, producing enough electricity to power about 20,000 homes. The number is only increasing, with more turbines going online in 2012 than in all other years combined.

"It creates electricity, it saves communities money. It stabilizes their energy costs for a long period of time. All those things are incredibly valuable," Brydges said.

FOX Undercover already raised questions about other wind turbines in the state. The MWRA wind turbine in Charlestown was offline for months after the foundation sank more than expected and had to be rebuilt. It's generating electricity again.

Two wind turbines at the state prison in Gardner that cost taxpayers nearly $10 million to build still aren't working even though on-site construction was completed in March 2011. A Department of Correction spokeswoman told FOX Undercover in July they should be operating during the summer.

The spokeswoman blames the delay on "…system upgrades… required by National Grid to allow the (Department of Correction) to connect to the system."

The DOC said testing is now underway, but the blades still aren't moving.

"Those kinds of delays are unfortunate. But they do happen and the fact is the turbines will be there ready to go when it gets interconnected, and they'll have a good long life," Brydges said.

A good long life was just one thing the central Massachusetts town of Princeton was hoping for when it paid for two wind turbines in 2009.

"This was a way we could produce renewable energy right here, keep it home grown. To be consumed by the people in town. It would be less that we would have to purchase," said Princeton Municipal Light Department General Manager Brian Allen.

The town has been losing money on its investment, and now Princeton is looking to sell the turbines.

"How much money has the community lost because of the wind turbines?" Beaudet asked Allen.

"About $1.8 million to date," Allen replied.

Princeton borrowed about $7 million to build the turbines. About a year after going online in 2010, a gear box in one suffered a catastrophic failure, costing about $600,000 to fix.

On top of that, Allen says the turbines aren't producing as much electricity as promised.

The turbines hurt Princeton's bottom line again when energy prices dropped, reducing revenue from selling electricity produced by the turbine.

"So instead of making what we thought we were going to make, we were making a third off the energy production, but still having to pay the loan," Allen said.

All the problems resulted in people in Princeton paying one of the highest electric rates in the state.

"Are the rates this high because of the wind turbines?" Beaudet asked.

"Yes," Allen replied. "No doubt about it."

Allen says he still supports renewable energy, but would think twice before jumping into another project.

"The question for us is do we need to own the renewables? In other words do we have to have that liability on our portfolio?" he said.

"What advice would you give other communities?" Beaudet asked.

"I would take whatever projections, and this is me personally, and just cut it in half," he said. "And if you say, ‘Yeah, it's still a good deal for us,' then I say go for it. But if you can't absorb that loss, I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't recommend that."

The state's Clean Energy Center says it is helping homeowners, businesses and cities and towns make the best decision for their energy needs and hopefully avoid problems like the ones Princeton is facing.

And the center is pushing on with wind energy, evidenced by the opening last year of a wind technology center in Boston, the only facility of its kind in the country where turbine blades up to 90 meters, or 295 feet, in length can be tested.

"Should people be running away from this?" Beaudet asked Brydges.

" No, I think they shouldn't. Of the 26 or 27 operating projects we have in Massachusetts, only a couple are having these issues. So I think the sample overall shows it can be a technology that's very well received," Brydges said.

One success story Brydges points to is in Scituate, where he says the town will save about $200,000-a-year on its electric bill. But even that so-called success story has its critics.

Neighbors are now complaining about the noise from the turbine and asking for it to be shut down.

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