Ground is broken for the first substantial wind turbine in the state. It is expected to go on line in March and will provide enough electricity to power about half of Portsmouth Abbey's campus.
PORTSMOUTH – For now, there is only a hole. But as holes go, this one is unique.
It is a cavernous gap in the earth’s surface, 13 feet in diameter, and 26 feet deep, lined with jagged bedrock and dirty clay. It is a hole that might belong in the rocky deserts of the Southwest, or near the smoking tar pits of prehistoric times, not atop a ridge on Portsmouth Abbey’s sprawling green campus.
A short distance away, a monk dressed in black robes is standing at a podium inside a large white tent. He is excited. There is much to celebrate, as school officials prepare to install Rhode Island’s first substantial wind turbine.
“We have a hole here behind us that you would not believe,” Brother Joseph Byron says to the crowd of state and local officials gathered under the tent. “It’s like one of those life-ending comets hit the ground right here.”
But it was a backhoe and explosives – not a comet – that has broken ground here for the Portsmouth Abbey School’s wind turbine project. And now engineers are installing the necessary infrastructure – electrical lines, the switch box and foundation – to beat the winter freeze.
“The plan is to get everything in the ground before winter,” says Brother Joseph, a Benedictine monk who tends to cows and teaches drama when not heading the landmark project. “After that, we just wait. The turbine arrives in March.”
The parts have been ordered.
The turbine will be shipped in from Italy. The blades from Denmark. And the tower from North Dakota.
“Hopefully, in March this thing can be craned into place and be up and running,” Brother Joseph says.
The Vestas V47 wind turbine will reach 241 feet at its highest point once installed. It will tower over the Portsmouth Abbey and the surrounding neighborhood, an instant landmark for much of the western Portsmouth and Narragansett Bay.
Just like a similar machine in Hull, Mass., Brother Joseph knows it may attract attention from other New England groups interested in renewable energy. The $1.2-million investment will power roughly half of the school’s campus, paying for itself in five to seven years, he says. The machine’s life expectancy is 25 years. He knows that a wind turbine can be a powerful tool to fight rising energy costs.
“It’s good to see it happening,” Brother Joseph says of the project, which has the blessing of town officials and neighbors. “It’s a little nerve racking. We’ve never done anything like this and neither has anybody else in Rhode Island.”
Early on in the process, the state’s Renewable Energy Office helped ease some of the Abbey’s fears with a $450,000 grant – the largest such grant in the history of the Rhode Island Renewable Energy Fund, according to Janice McClanaghan, of the state office.
For technical help, the Abbey has leaned on wind-energy advocates at nearby Roger Williams University. Brother Joseph learned that winds on campus aren’t forceful, but they don’t have to be.
The Abbey’s winds are classified as “fair,” averaging between 14 and 16 mph. Wind speeds need to average about 12 mph to make a turbine viable, according to experts.
Town Council president Mary Ann Edwards takes Brother Joseph’s place at the podium when he is finished.
“This is a first for Rhode Island, and this is wonderful because it’s a first for Portsmouth. Congratulations, sir,” she says, looking at Brother Joseph. “We’ve got our dream coming true.”
To contact staff writer Steve Peoples, phone (401) 277-7459 or e-mail SPeoplesATprojo.com
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