Sunday, November 30, 2008

Higher power

What if some nuns in Wrentham decided to put up a wind turbine? And then high school officials in Worcester? And a Canton bank chairman? And pretty soon, the question wasn't where do wind farms belong, but how many windmills can we squeeze in to every last available space? That day is coming.

By Keith O'Brien

November 30, 2008

Down a gravel road, past a weathered, one-armed statue of St. Joseph somewhere near the Franklin-Wrentham town line, there is a field, a nun, and a dream. The nun, 52-year-old Sister Mariann Garrity, moves gingerly through the waist-high grass in a black veil and bright white New Balance sneakers. This way, she beckons, and keeps going.

She and the other 49 nuns who stay at Mount St. Mary's Abbey in Wrentham practice silence and simplicity. They awake every morning to pray at 3:20 and pray together another six times throughout the day. They wear traditional black and white nun's habits and, for the most part, forsake modern-day gadgets like cellphones and iPods. The last time the nuns even allowed themselves to watch television was seven years ago: September 11, 2001.

But don't confuse simplicity with technological ignorance. The nuns live in the same century as the rest of us. They know all about carbon footprints and fossil-fuel costs. And here in this grass-choked field, on this hill where Sister Garrity stands, the nuns have plans, big 21st-century plans. "There are our sheep," she says, gesturing to the livestock in the pasture. "And right down here at the end of the fence is where we're going to put our turbine."

By turbine, Sister Garrity means wind turbine. And by "our," she means the nuns are going to own it. As they see it, the turbine will be a long-term investment, defraying roughly 75 percent of the abbey's electricity costs. Those are big savings that pretty much anyone can appreciate. And the nuns aren't the only ones chasing the wind.

While rich people with summer homes have spent the better part of the last decade fighting Cape Wind, a large offshore wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound, single turbine projects, like the one going up at the abbey, are becoming increasingly common. In the last three years, the state has awarded $23 million to people looking to build one or two wind turbines on their property. There are now roughly 100 projects either scheduled to be built or being studied, according to the state. And with electricity costs in Massachusetts nearly three times higher than in 2000 -- and expected to keep rising -- it's no longer just green-minded liberals championing the cause of wind, but rather "radical freethinkers" like small-town officials, school superintendents, and businesspeople looking to save money while also doing a little something to help the earth.

Officials from Medford to Plymouth, Quincy to Sandwich have received state funding to study the feasibility of wind projects in their communities. High schools want them, and so do ski resorts. The idea, says James Christo, is becoming increasingly popular.

"It's still in the very early stage. They're very expensive, these projects," says Christo, the program director of green buildings and infrastructure at the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust, the state program that distributes grant funding to wind and other renewable energy projects. The turbines can cost more than a million dollars each. And they're often towering structures -- not to be confused with the small wind turbines that some Massachusetts residents have placed in their yards to help power their homes.

Still, Christo says, the demand is there. His telephone rings at least a couple of times every day with calls from people looking to build a turbine. Small wind development start-up companies, including one founded by a Tufts University junior, are springing up everywhere, and a new state law, signed by Governor Deval Patrick in July, makes community-sized wind projects more profitable than ever.

Under the new statute, owners of large turbines -- up to 2 megawatts (2,000 kilowatts), enough to power roughly 440 homes for an entire year -- can now sell excess power back to their electricity provider, like NStar or National Grid, something they could not do under old regulations. Or they can earn credits to cover other electricity costs -- say, at another nearby facility -- essentially spreading out their excess power as they see fit. So a turbine erected at a public high school on a hill could, in effect, help conserve power at town hall, too. Money saved in electricity costs over time could help save teachers' jobs or keep libraries open later. A wind turbine -- that dreaded eyesore to so many people on the Cape -- can give a strapped community options. As a result, a growing number of people are asking: Why not wind?

"The time for talking about this issue is over. We need action. We need hands-on learning," says Medford's mayor, Michael J. McGlynn, who hopes that a 100-kilowatt wind turbine scheduled to be erected at one of the city's public schools next month will help teach children the importance of conservation. "But, obviously, the money is significant, too. Any time you're saving $25,000 or $30,000 a year, you're saving somebody's job."

Such interest has created a land rush of sorts. The fact is, there are only so many places in the state where there's enough wind to make a turbine feasible. Many landlocked communities don't have enough wind on a daily basis to fly a kite, much less power a turbine, wind maps reveal. In Stow, about 30 miles west of Boston, officials studied wind power recently, only to realize that, sadly, they don't have much wind at all.

But experts like Nick D'Arbeloff, executive director of the New England Clean Energy Council, say there's no doubt where the market is headed. Forget about Cape Wind for a moment. Shelve the debate about that 130-turbine wind farm somewhere in Nantucket Sound. The future of wind power may be a lot smaller than you think, and the nearest windmill may be right around the corner. The landscape, many believe, is going to be dotted with them.

Before electricity and gasoline, nuclear power or coal, the peoples of Egypt, Phoenicia, and Persia set their minds on harnessing the wind. Powered by sails made of animal skins or woven reeds, and later flax and cotton, explorers traveled the world. And before the dawn of the second century, people realized that using sails on land -- in the form of a windmill -- could help move water or grind grain. The windmill became indispensable. From Crete to China to Europe and finally to the New World, farmers came to rely on these rudimentary turbines. They proliferated -- in particular across the American West, where the land was flat and the winds strong -- until, in 1888, a mustachioed Ohio inventor named Charles Brush set out to build a large windmill capable of generating electricity.

The machine, made in part of cedar, was hailed as a success, charging battery cells in Brush's basement, which in turn powered the newly invented light bulbs in his expansive Cleveland home. Over the course of the next century, countless engineers improved upon Brush's design, eventually replacing his 50-foot cedar slats with fiberglass blades often well over 100 feet long. California, in particular, became home to thousands of wind turbines, including, in 1981, the largest wind farm in the world: Altamont Pass. Developers, looking to reap the benefits before state and federal tax credits expired, rushed to build some 5,000 turbines in Altamont, an hour's drive east of San Francisco. The project was considered a noble effort to stave off future energy crises. There was just one problem: the birds.

"The big fatal flaw was nobody did an avian study before the project went into the ground," says Lisa Daniels, a Pittsfield native and Bentley College graduate who's now executive director of Windustry, a national nonprofit wind advocacy group based in Minneapolis. "Turns out, it's a raptor breeding area."

Birds, including golden eagles and red-tailed hawks, began dying off in droves every year, cut down by the whirling blades. Once a symbol for progress, Altamont quickly became the wind industry's albatross, a reason not to build turbines. Anyone opposed to a wind project, including those opposed to Cape Wind, could reference Altamont. And they did.

But much has changed since Altamont's folly. Bird studies are now standard operating procedure. Wind developers who cannot show what effect their turbines will have on the local wildlife population might as well fold up their blades and move on. And the technology itself has changed. Today's wind turbines -- which have a life span of about 20 years -- spin far more slowly than they did in the past, thus decreasing the risk of midair wildlife collisions. Still, the protests on the Cape, and elsewhere, continue as opponents complain about everything from a wind project's potential impact on wildlife, to noise, to the simple fact that one might have to look at the turbines in question. The problem can often be summed up in four simple words: Not in my backyard. "NIMBY," explains Ian Bowles, secretary of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs. "That's the challenge. That's it."

But to wind developers like 30-year-old Kevin Schulte, the NIMBY argument simply isn't good enough anymore. Americans, Schulte says, have spent decades living in a world of "invisible energy." "We don't know," he says, "nor do we care, where we get our energy from, as long as the lights turn on when we flip the switch." But with increasing concerns about protecting the environment and meeting the energy needs of a fast-growing world, that has to change, Schulte believes. The brief, luxurious era of invisible energy may be coming to an end.

"Wind power is part of that," Schulte says. "It seems to be peppered all over society right now: green, green, green. Well, this is green. This is clean energy. This is 20 years of energy with no emissions. Twenty years of energy with no pollution you have to bury in the ground. I think that's all right."


chulte is baby-faced, bespectacled, and a bit wide in the waist. He's prone to wearing khaki pants and work boots, and he's not big on formalities. His uniform most days is a green T-shirt, untucked, emblazoned with his company's logo. The employees at Sustainable Energy Developments Inc. -- a wind development company that Schulte cofounded in 2002 -- call him Kev. And SED's Massachusetts office is not some stuffy, cubicle-walled fortress. It is a one-bedroom apartment, located above a chiropractor's office in Sterling, about 20 miles north of Worcester, where employees sometimes jockey for a place to sleep. "The couch is arguably most comfortable," says senior project manager Dave Strong, 29, sitting in the apartment one recent morning with an iced coffee in hand. "Real nice."

SED, based in upstate New York, opened the Sterling office -- couch and all -- about a year ago out of necessity. The wind business in Massachusetts was simply becoming too busy not to have a local office. The trips back and forth to New York every day were taking a toll on Schulte and the company's 16 other employees. They needed a place to crash, if nothing else. And the apartment, with its burnt-red walls, would do just fine. SED, like many wind-power start-ups, has humble roots.

It began in a different apartment outside of Albany six years ago, the brainchild of four classmates from James Madison University in Virginia and another friend. The idea, Schulte says, was to take what they learned working on wind farms and go smaller. Instead of building 100 turbines, build one. And instead of owning a wind farm -- as many developers do, selling the power for a profit -- SED's goal was managing the construction of a single turbine for a business or town, allowing the client to own the turbine and reap the benefits of the power it produced.

"It really is the model that is successful in Massachusetts right now," Schulte says. "I'm a believer in large wind. My background is large wind. But in Massachusetts, in the Northeast, where the population is dense, like Europe, you have to look to smaller projects. That's what's going to be successful."

This pitch is working for SED and other wind-power developers because, with electricity prices soaring, people are finally ready to hear it. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority -- the Commonwealth's largest user of electricity -- hired Schulte's crew this year with the hopes of building at least a couple of wind turbines. With the help of money from the state's Renewable Energy Trust, the T would like to build the first, a 100-kilowatt machine, at the end of the Old Colony commuter rail line in Kingston next spring.

T officials believe it could cover 75 percent of the station's power needs, and townspeople in Hanover, just a dozen miles from Kingston, have similar dreams. They voted in May to build a 100-kilowatt wind turbine to help power the town's water treatment plant, and if this turbine is successful, there are hopes of building two more in town.

There's also Jim Egan, the chairman of the Bank of Canton. He isn't exactly the portrait of the go-green movement. He's a 64-year-old lifelong banker who drives a Cadillac that gets 22 miles to the gallon. But with the help of state funding, Egan is also leading an effort to build a wind turbine -- this one at the company's headquarters on Route 138 in Canton. The reason, Egan says, is simple. The wind blows -- often hard -- at the bank's headquarters. And Egan, being a math guy, has run the numbers. With a wind turbine in place, the bank could save as much as $8,000 a month in energy costs. "We have this huge parking lot," he says. "It's just sitting there. And we could put this thing up. It wouldn't hurt a soul."

In fact, Egan points out, it would help people -- maybe even help business. A bank manages money for its customers, he says, and wouldn't customers want to know that the people in charge were thinking broadly? Actually doing something right from both a financial and environmental standpoint? In this way, wind turbines are actually becoming a sort of 21st-century marketing tool, even an attraction.

Take Forbes Park, for example. The 68-unit Chelsea project opening early next year is touted as a "sustainable condo development," complete with a small fleet of electric cars to be used by its residents and a 243-foot-tall wind turbine capable of powering almost 150 homes. In another neighborhood, such a structure might not be welcome. But developer Blair Galinsky is actually turning the NIMBY argument on its head. On this patch of land, overlooking the Mystic River, people actually want a wind turbine in their backyard, Galinsky says. And he is prepared to make the most of it. He is building a platform so that people can visit the turbine, and he plans to light it up at night for everyone to see.

"I can't honestly tell you how many people I've seen standing there, waiting there, looking at the windmill," Galinsky says. "They want to know more about it."

Here's how they work: The turbines tie right into the electrical grid and also into the structure to be powered. With a steady breeze blowing -- ideally, it averages about 13 miles per hour over the course of a year -- the large white fiberglass blades begin to rotate, which in turn spin a shaft inside the turbine. The spinning shaft powers a generator, and -- bingo -- you've got electricity.

But since the turbine is also connected to the grid, there's a little give and take. On calm, windless days, your school or water plant or bank simply draws electricity from the utility grid, as usual. And on windy days, you don't just feel good about saving money -- and the environment -- you're effectively getting paid. All excess electricity gets sucked up by the utility and -- thanks to the new legislation signed by Patrick -- you could be making 15 cents or more per kilowatt-hour generated. As the folks at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in the Berkshires can attest, those kilowatt-hours can add up.

Their turbine -- a 38-story, 1.5-megawatt windmill that's visible both in Massachusetts and across the state line in New York -- went up in August 2007 for about $4 million. Not cheap, even when you consider that the state kicked in $600,000 of that. But with the wind turbine capable of generating about 4 million kilowatt-hours annually -- enough to power more than 530 homes for an entire year -- the resort has options. It's saving about $400,000 a year in electricity costs. And under the new state statute, officials there expect to make another $250,000 selling energy back to the grid. Translation: The turbine will be paid off in about seven years.

"It's a fun machine," says 61-year-old Paul Maloney, the resort's vice president of operations, standing one recent afternoon beneath the towering, spinning turbine. He then stops and holds a finger in the air. And that's when you hear it.




The sound is steady, rhythmic. And it's true: You can hear it at a distance, too, some days all the way down at the base of the mountain. Some days, farther. It depends on how the wind is blowing, locals say. But there have been few complaints. That's the thing about these single-turbine projects, says Warren Leon, former director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which administers the state's Renewable Energy Trust. There is a lot less opposition to them. And that, Leon says, is just one more reason why he expects to see wind turbines decorating the Massachusetts sky in the years ahead.

"I think we need to move aggressively and fast, but carefully and cautiously. That sounds contradictory," Leon says. "But I take the long view. We need to develop a lot more wind projects here in Massachusetts. But it won't be good in the long run if the first projects that get built don't perform well, engender a lot of opposition, and end up being perceived by the public as a bad idea. What I want to make sure is that 10 or 15 years from now, we have a large number of wind turbines spinning in Massachusetts and the public is happy about that."

Massachusetts-based wind developers are betting big that it will happen. Out of the success of the Jiminy Peak project, the resort's owners became so sure that wind is the way of the future that they founded Eos, a renewable-energy company of their own. "I'm convinced of it," says Tyler Fairbank, the son of Jiminy Peak co-owner Brian Fairbank and the CEO of Eos. "I'm obviously betting my career on it." So are Bob Shatten and Tom Michelman, the founders of Acton-based Boreal Renewable Energy Development. They not only oversaw the construction of the wind turbine at Galinsky's lofts in Chelsea, but they also have about a dozen Massachusetts projects in the pipeline. And then there's Greg Hering, the founder of Emergent Energy Group, another wind development company. He's just 21 years old, but not lacking at all for confidence. When asked how much money he -- a Tufts college kid -- can raise for the half-dozen utility-scale wind turbines he's looking to build across the state, Hering, who grew up in Natick, has his answer ready. "As much as I need," he says.

In fact, wind-power experts say, there are only a few factors holding back development. One is the resource itself. A quick look at the Massachusetts wind maps -- yes, there are wind maps -- reveals that many parts of the state just aren't that windy. And then there is the problem of getting equipment. Some developers say it can take a year, or longer, to get a turbine in hand. Still, though, they are building.

"These are the blades," Schulte of SED says, standing next to three 75-foot, soon-to-be-spinning rotors one late summer afternoon at Holy Name Central Catholic Junior-Senior High School in Worcester. "We've had a night watchman here at night," he adds, nodding to the rotors laid flat on bales of hay. "We can't have any vandals."

The 675-student school is cobbling together more than $1.5 million for its wind turbine, which Mary Riordan, the school's white-haired 70-year-old president, hopes to have paid off well within a decade. It's a lot of money, she confesses, and it's a hard time to be asking for donations. But she's doing it anyway -- and calling in some favors with the Catholic Church. In August, before Holy Name's turbine went up, Riordan had a local bishop come out and bless the turbine. And she's not the only one praying for a nice stiff breeze.

Remember the nuns? Their turbine -- another SED project -- is scheduled to be built this winter. And Sister Mariann Garrity, for one, can't wait for the moment she sees those pearly white blades spinning. "The wind is just something that we've let caress our faces," she says. "It was not something, up until now, that we had learned how to harness. And when we see that turbine go up, we'll know that we are using a gift of creation in a much more effective way."

It's just like the nuns pray on Sundays. Gathered together, all 50 of them, they thank the Lord for the rain and the dew, for the heat of summer and the cold of winter. They give thanks for the seas and the rivers and the beasts, wild and tame. And they give thanks, of course, for the wind blowing outside the abbey, just waiting for a turbine to spin. "All you winds," they say together, quoting from the book of Daniel, "bless the Lord."

1 comment:

Les and Jane said...

Great blog post...
What if more people did decide that wind was the answer, but let's not stop at only installing the big skyscraper wind turbines.
Why not build a wind generator in every back yard?
It is possible, find out more here
Build A Wind Generator

All the best,
Les and Jane