Four years ago, while a proposal to build several wind turbines in Fitchburg drew heaps of attention, Hunter Gelinas quietly explored erecting one of his own, one town over in Ashburnham.
Gelinas, an area developer, wanted the turbine to provide electricity for the industrial park he planned there. But the project wasn’t realized as Gelinas’ option to buy the property expired before he had received approval to erect a test tower for the site.
And while he went around pitching the project, familiarity with wind energy was low.
“I would present the project to different groups, whether it be financial interests or organizations and there was more understanding of the ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ aspect of the development,” he said in an interview last week. “The wind turbines perplexed some people.”
But now there are a handful of wind energy projects in different stages of development in North Central Massachusetts. Their proponents say the economic and environmental benefits are notable.
Princeton’s is the closest to reaching fruition. Its municipal light department is constructing a site for two turbines that will be erected next year – a $6.7 million project that will replace eight older turbines shut down in 2004 after 20 years of operation.
When finished, the two 1.5 megawatt turbines will supply about 40 percent of the town’s energy – the equivalent of 800 homes – and comprise the state’s largest wind farm, according to Jon Fitch, the department’s general manager.
“We look at it paying itself back in month one,” he said. “We can generate energy at a cheaper rate than what we can buy on the market, and in a renewable manner.”
Wind is emerging as the state’s most easily harnessed renewable energy source, according to its proponents, as the push to wean people off electricity generated by fossil fuel gains momentum.
But the construction of turbines brings complications – including access to prime locations, noise, height and safety – especially since most municipalities don’t yet have regulations overseeing their siting.
Besides Princeton, Fitchburg, Templeton and Mount Wachusett Community College are in various stages of building turbines locally. The only ones now operating in the state are two in Hull and one at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
But interest in the projects has grown in the past four years, according to Christopher Clark, senior project manager of the Renewable Energy Trust at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which has aided several towns on wind projects in the past four years.
“More recently, there’s more sensitivity to environmental issues and climate change, and interest in wind is an offshoot of that,” he said.
He noted that rising electricity costs have contributed to the interest.
Wind makes sense in the state because of its abundance along the coasts and hills throughout Worcester County and the Berkshires, according to proponents.
Turbines work most effectively when located on ridges where they are significantly higher in elevation than the surrounding territory, they said.
At least one year of testing and analysis is required before erecting a turbine somewhere to ensure the site has wind that is forceful and constant enough to generate energy. Gelinas said an average of about 13 mph of wind makes the project worthwhile.
A Fitchburg site?
In Fitchburg, city officials say they’re interested in doing such testing on city-owned land near Lovell Reservoir in hopes of providing energy to the water department’s filtration plant on Rindge Road.
“Depending on what they find, that could save the city a lot of money,” said David Streb, the planning coordinator. “Obviously, we’re a long way away and nothing could come of this, but it’s worth a look.”
Mayor Dan H. Mylott said this week he wants to move forward on the testing there, but added, “That’s as far as my support goes until we see what exactly transpires. There is no other plan to look at anything else until we do the test tower for this particular project.”
The city’s planning board is also in the very early stages of drafting an ordinance that would regulate turbine siting.
The first foray into wind energy production in the city didn’t go so smoothly, when William Hubbard, president of Applied Wind Technology of Townsend, sought to erect between six and 10 turbines on a rural hay farm. Many city officials strongly opposed the idea and Hubbard had to take down his crane-mounted test tower after losing a court battle.
Hubbard, in an interview this week, said his company has not intensely pursued any wind projects since, preferring to wait until municipalities craft rules to govern turbines. But he applauded Fitchburg’s planning board for taking on the task.
“The cities that are able to make policies ahead of the curve will be able to regulate and participate in some of the beneficial aspects,” he said.
The three other wind projects in the area, like Fitchburg’s, are being driven by public entities. They all also focus on supplying energy to a specific building or residents within the town where the turbines are located, rather than selling the kilowatts on the wholesale market to the utility grid.
Clark said those projects can prove more economically viable because they offset the cost of buying from a traditional company.
“At an on-site project the power gets credited at the retail end, while a project tied directly to the wholesale grid sells power at a lower wholesale rate,” he said.
In Princeton, Fitch hopes to finish preparing the turbines’ pad sites, located on 16 acres of town-owned land, by October. A German company will deliver the turbines next year, after five years of permitting.
Though residents approved the project at an all-town meeting, Fitch said receiving all the approvals was a delicate process.
“Today they’re very slow and graceful, less noisy, almost without noise, but today they are so much bigger,” he said of turbines at the construction site, where the view looking westward stretches for miles. “The aesthetics have become the biggest issue and they are so much larger and can be seen from far, far away. But some see them as art, kinetic art.”
Princeton’s site has an elevation of about 1,500 feet, more than 500 feet above the surrounding land. The average wind speed there is 15 mph, according to Fitch. The turbines will be about 365 feet high, measured to the tip of the blade, and about 2,200 feet away from the closest home.
Mount Wachusett Community College’s and Templeton’s projects are in slightly earlier stages. Both recently completed their year of testing and believe there is enough wind to make the projects work.
Officials there said they hope to have turbines erected by the end of next year, but there is a backlog of turbine demand, which could delay the projects.
Daniel M. Asquino, the college’s president, said the college first started exploring alternative energy about eight years ago to lower its bills, but the effort has broadened within the campus.
“The ideas are really exciting,” he said. “This is what we should be doing and what our students should be learning about. It started simply and expanded to the educational aspect.”
In Templeton, officials have applied for a federal tax-exempt bond to finance the project. They want to locate a 1.5 megawatt turbine near the practice fields of the Narragansett Regional High School in town, which would cover 10 percent of residences.
Sean Hamilton, general manager of the town’s municipal light and water plant, said the turbine won’t pose any safety issues because it generates the majority of its power in the winter, when the practice fields are not being used. One of Hull’s turbines is also located near school athletic fields.
Hamilton added town officials are fully supportive and the school system plans on using the turbine in lesson plans.
“The economics work for purchasing the power,” said Sean Hamilton, in an interview. “Wind power is not influenced by global unrest or market fluctuation. Wind is a fixed cost through the life of the project.”
Gelinas said those economic benefits are a primary reason why he no longer gets puzzled looks when pitching wind power, like he did four years ago on his Ashburnham proposal.
“It has much more visibility now because of things like Cape Wind, candidates for state and national politics are talking about alternative fuels and people so much anger about oil prices,” Gelinas said. “There’s certainly a correlation between people’s anger and gas prices.”
By Aaron Wasserman
30 July 2007
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