Massachusetts is joining a race against other U.S. states for wind power development funding to build infrastructure necessary to keep innovation here, and reverse a track record of letting wind technologies drift out to the Midwest.
In addition to playing catch-up, Massachusetts officials face roadblocks including coastal Cape residents who vocally oppose windmills messing up the Atlantic horizon, lack of industry presence, and a lack of infrastructure to support development. There’s also some gale force competition blowing in from Texas and Iowa where sweeping prairies and open spaces provide ideal conditions for wind power generation.
“We exported to California but maybe now the time is right to bring it back to New England,” said Glen Berkowitz, president of Beaufort Windpower LLC, a Boston-based wind power consulting company.
In a bid to move development here, the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust board recently voted to reserve $3.4 million toward wind energy technology development. But the funds hinge on whether Massachusetts wins a bid for a U.S. Department of Energy Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) to construct a 70,000-square-foot large-blade testing facility at a cost of $6 million to $9 million. The site would be designed to test both land and ocean turbine blades.
The only other testing site in the country is located in Colorado. Texas and Iowa have large wind infrastructures including existing blade manufacturing plants. Still, Massachusetts is a contender. Wind blades are difficult to transport and the proximity to water is an important consideration.
“It’s a potential catalyst for cluster development,” said Greg Watson, vice president for sustainable development and renewable energy at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MTC), which is a quasi-state agency that manages the Trust.
Wind is big business. In 2005 wind was the second largest source of new power behind natural gas in the United States, according to officials at the Washington, D.C.-based American Wind Energy Association. Total wind generation capacity in the United States climbed 26 percent between 2004 and 2005.
But the explosion in wind generation is not happening in New England. In Texas there are 2,400 wind energy projects. In California there are 2,300. In Massachusetts there are four.
There is also some heated debate about Bay State wind power proposals such as the stalled Cape Wind project on Nantucket Sound, proposed by Cape Wind Associates LLC.
There are visible signs of acceptance, though. For instance, the large windmill perched at the edge of the Boston Harbor Islands in Hull is already up and running. No thanks to state support. The project was launched five years ago and is self-sustaining, said Andrew Stern, a Hull community consultant on the project. He said Hull ran into major roadblocks including a long, complex approval and funding process, and therefore did not receive any state funds.
Watson said while the MTC is open to improvements, the process is by nature complex due to delicate environmental and political issues.
In the instance of Hull, however, its status as one of 40 Bay State municipalities that generate their own power means it doesn’t pay into or support the state’s Emerging Technology Fund.
Countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands traditionally drove the industry’s core technologies. Now European companies are investing in the Midwest. For example, Denmark-based wind technology company Suzlon Energy Ltd. built 12 wind farms in Minnesota. The company set up its U.S. headquarters in Chicago.
But wind technology dates back to the ’70s and ’80s in Massachusetts, according to Watson and Berkowitz. Indeed, the University of Massachusetts Amherst is home to the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
“The brain power exists and the capital exists here but it depends if the wind power will be built,” said Berkowitz.
Two New England companies specialize in wind measurement, a key ingredient to determine the wind power feasibility. Hinesburg, Vt.-based NRG Systems Inc. and Somerville-based Second Wind Inc. develop technologies which measure wind velocity and turbine performance, and forecast production.
Paul D. Sclavounos, MIT professor of mechanical engineering and naval architecture, is researching a wind turbine which floats 20 miles off shore. Sclavounos said the state’s investment in a large blade testing facility would enhance regional efforts to build a technology cluster and strengthen existing efforts.
Sclavounos said interest in his research is high. This month alone he met with representatives from Goldman, Sachs & Co. and Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy Inc.
“What we learn will be good for the state and will be good for the industry,” said Sclavounos.
by Catherine Williams
Mass High Tech
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