A large-bladed windmill spinning at the Attleboro wastewater treatment plant?
A gas-fired power generation plant in North Attleboro?
Until recently, solutions to rising energy costs and emissions of greenhouse gases were thought to be far-off problems – or at least challenges best tackled on nation or statewide levels.
Now, local governments are weighing in with concepts that could bring at least a measure of energy independence while saving local consumers and taxpayers money at the same time.
Combined with a statewide energy efficiency initiative aimed at conservation and stimulating the alternative energy industry, such developments could soon be garnering greater visibility and taking on greater economic importance in the Attleboro area.
Attleboro Mayor Kevin Dumas recently ordered a study of the potential for using a wind turbine to cut $1 million a year in utility costs for the city’s water and wastewater treatment plant operations. In North Attleboro, the town-owned electric utility is not ruling out any options in its search for more cost-effective energy sources – including the possibility of constructing a peak-use power plant.
Meanwhile, municipal officials are under pressure to conserve energy in any way they can, egged on by state policy makers dangling carrots in the form of grants and reimbursements.
Last week, Gov. Deval Patrick announced a statewide energy strategy designed to meet increasing demand for electric power with alternative energy and conservation measures, while at the same stimulating jobs in the technology sector.
But in view of surging energy costs and growing demand locally, city and town officials aren’t content to just go along for the ride.
In North Attleboro, where the town-owned electric utility already spends $90,000 a year on conservation measures like replacing inefficient lighting and rebates for energy efficient appliances, North Attleboro Electric Manager James Moynihan said officials are looking for ways to potentially produce some of their own power.
“Conservation is certainly an important part of the effort,” he said. “But in North Attleboro, we believe we also have to look at potential alternative energy sources and/or the possibility of a new generation facility in North Attleboro.”
One possibility mentioned by some town officials is the location of one or more wind turbines atop Sunrise Hill, the town’s highest location. But Moynihan said a fossil fuel-supplied generating plant is not out of the question – particularly one designed to make electricity during times of peak demand.
Under existing power grid rules, local utilities are required to purchase capacity to meet peak as well as general electrical needs, forcing them to commit to expensive contracts for peaks that might come once or twice a year.
A generating facility theoretically would permit the utility to control its peak costs directly.
In Attleboro, the possibility of erecting a wind turbine is linked directly to burgeoning energy costs at the city’s water and wastewater plants. Dumas has said he is bullish on the prospect, if a practical location and funding can be found.
Although Attleboro lacks many elevated locations ideally suited to wind power, one possibility would be Ides Hill, where the city already owns property.
Conceivably, a wind turbine could also be located on the grounds of the city wastewater treatment plant, which uses an estimated $650,000 to $750,000 a year in electricity.
The city has already received a favorable reply to its application seeking help from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, Wastewater Superintendent Paul Kennedy said, and is awaiting a wind survey report by the state.
If initial investigations prove favorable, it could trigger a yearlong measurement of local wind potential.
“Right now we’re feeling pretty good about it,” Kennedy said.
State officials are particularly interested in alternative energy projects that would directly address the needs of large power users like the city’s water and wastewater operations, which together use up to $1.5 million worth of electricity per year.
City schools could also have a direct role in addressing energy costs by replacing existing, inefficient buildings with new ones designed to maximize new technologies and conservation.
Any savings are of particular interest to schools in Attleboro, which spends an estimated $2.8 million a year in utility costs.
Attleboro and other communities with pressing school building projects could get assistance from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative in cooperation with the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which is offering reimbursements of up to 2 percent of project costs for schools meeting its energy efficiency and environmental standards.
Maximizing energy efficiency and taking advantage of potential reimbursements would be a priority for Attleboro school officials who are in the process of submitting an education plan preliminary to seeking construction assistance for a new or revamped Attleboro High School.
“That’s something we would be very interested in,” said Carol Martin, director of teaching and learning excellence for the Attleboro School Department.
Attleboro and North Attleboro would not be the first communities to tackle the energy problem head on.
Other Massachusetts towns have already invested in windmills, photovoltaics and even a fuel cell-based generator in Braintree that uses gases from a defunct landfill.
But political will and controversy concerning potentially unsightly or smelly alternative energy sources has been and remains a potential stumbling block.
Several years ago, a proposal for a trash-burning energy plant in Mansfield was met by loud protests over the potential for dangerous dioxin emissions. On a larger scale, a major offshore wind farm proposed by Cape Wind LLC continues to face major opposition from residents who claim view of Nantucket Sound would be ruined by the development.
More recently, Rehoboth voters turned thumbs down on an evaluation of windpower for their town because of costs.
Conserving energy and finding alternate sources is important not just for economic reasons, but for issues of climate change, said Robert Keough, Assistant Secretary for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. An estimated one-third of all greenhouse gases are believed to be linked to power generation, he said.
Against that backdrop, Keough said, intensified efforts in the area of conservation and alternative technologies look like a good deal.
“Capturing additional energy efficiencies costs about a third as much as generating the equivalent amount of power,” Keough said. “So, if we’re able to do that, why wouldn’t we?”
While a major part of the governor’s energy initiative is aimed at conservation, another goal is to stimulate industry and jobs in the area of alternative energy technology.
Massachusetts already has a number of innovative energy companies, such as ZGen, whose technology converts demolition and construction waste to synthetic gas, and Enernoc, a Boston firm that helps large companies and government agencies cut utility costs by remotely monitoring and controlling lighting and mechanical systems.
In Attleboro, General Compression, a subsidiary of Mechanology, hopes to be a major winner in expanding the use of wind power to fill commercial and public energy needs.
The Water Street company is developing a technology called dispatchable wind power that uses turbines to compress air, which is stored in underground pipes. The air can then be released to power generators or stored for several hours until needed.
General Compression’s technology addresses what has traditionally been seen as a major weakness of wind turbines: They are able to produce electricity only when the wind is blowing.
While Mechanology has been working on innovative energy solutions for years, company officials welcome the spotlight that comes with the governor’s stated strategy.
“From a perspective of public and industry awareness, it’s a great thing for us,” said the company’s Don Wright.
But while municipalities and a growing number of small companies are stepping to the forefront on conservation and green energy, the state government could be doing a better job of encouraging initiatives like wind power, said John Rogers with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.
Although the state has long been among the frontrunners in advocating alternative energy, it has fallen behind in mandating alternative power as a part of the state’s electricity supply.
Current law calls for alternatives to make up 4 percent of power use by 2009 and increasing 1 percent each year thereafter unless a new standard is set. Other states, such as New York, have set more ambitious goals.
“Predictability is what’s needed to get investors to commit money for projects,” Rogers said. “Right now, that’s what’s lacking.”
Currently, alternative power provides only a tiny fraction of U.S. energy needs, with wind generating less than 1 percent of the overall mix versus 50 percent made by coal. However, energy experts say alternatives’ potential is too great to ignore.
It is estimated that enough wind is available in the United States to generate 10,777 billion killowatt hours of electricity annually, according to the Pacific Northwest Laboratory. That’s twice the entire amount of electricity generated in the United States as of 2006.
By Rick Foster
Sun Chronicle Staff
1 July 2007