City Council hearings on what would be the tallest wind turbines in Massachusetts were shelved temporarily yesterday after officials were informed a wind turbine in Oregon collapsed and took a life four days earlier.
Conveying the news, Michael Faherty, the attorney for Varian Semiconductor Equipment Associates, had to raise his voice over the noise of a helicopter hovering above Blackburn Industrial Park.
The helicopter was brought in by Varian to show the council and community how high and visible the twin turbines would be.
The Times received reports of helicopter sightings from relatively nearby sites – Good Harbor Beach, the Fitz H. Lane House on Rogers Street and Sudbay’s auto dealership on Route 128. With clear skies, the turbines, to be built on the island’s highest point, should be visible from much greater distances.
“They can be seen from virtually every point in the city,” Faherty told two councilors, fire Chief Barry McKay and Steven Magoon, chief administrative aide to Mayor John Bell. They were standing with him in the parking lot outside Varian’s offices.
The towers would rise 328 feet from their bases with blade heights adding another 168 feet, for a total of 496 feet – roughly the height of a 30-story building.
At that height, the Varian twins would be slightly taller than the recently installed turbine at Jiminy Peak ski resort in Hancock, now the tallest in the state.
Faherty asked for and was granted a two-week continuance of the council hearings while the company gathers information about the collapse of a smaller turbine on a wind farm in The Dalles, Ore., a city on the Columbia River about 60 miles east of Portland.
The council’s Planning and Development Committee had intended to vet the landmark project last night so that the full council could consider and presumably approve the project next Tuesday.
“There has been no serious opposition (to Varian’s turbines), just concern,” said committee Chairman Walter Peckham.
Faherty told Peckham and his committee colleague, Jackie Hardy, that the tower that fell, killing one worker and injuring another, was of “a different mode, design and manufacturer” than the ones Varian hopes to order.
Postponing the hearing “was the prudent thing to do,” Faherty said.
“The major issue is that we don’t know what caused the machine in Oregon to fail. We don’t want people making claims that aren’t true,” he added.
There was little opposition when Varian introduced its turbine project as the company began what has been an uninterrupted ascent and acquired expansion property in the industrial park.
Mayor John Bell was an early and visible backer of the project.
With more than 1,200 employees, mostly on its Gloucester campus, Varian has solidified its position as the city’s alpha company. It is the only local firm whose stock is traded on a New York exchange – and it has been trading upward.
The city’s largest employer and the world leader in capital equipment used in making computer chips, Varian has been eager to invest $11 million in the turbine project to reduce its annual multi-million-dollar electric bill.
Rick Johnson, Varian’s facilities director, said he believes Varian’s would be the largest turbines in output constructed by a private company for its own use.
In hopes of speeding council approval of a project that was sidetracked earlier this year, the company embraced Councilor Michael McLeod’s idea of having a helicopter hover at 500 feet – the blades’ height – to dramatize the visual impact, which Varian has never tried to hide.
“It’s just large, very large,” Johnson acknowledged soon after the company filed its plans.
It would be relatively quiet, however, according to the company. The larger the turbines, the slower their treble blades spin. The ambient noise from Varian’s pair, designed to be about 200 yards apart on its campus, would be “the equivalent of five people in conversation,” Faherty said.
Councilors Hardy, McLeod and Jason Grow, whose ward includes Varian, said they were not taken aback by the sight of the hovering helicopter.
“It wasn’t as high as I thought it would be,” said Hardy.
The project was delayed in January when a draft wind turbine ordinance was introduced, angering company executives who had hoped to place their order in a buyer’s market.
The ordinance was adopted and now governs the Varian proposal.
Johnson said that when Varian had to put off ordering from the German manufacturer, Fuhrlaender, the company lost six months of wind power, which he estimated meant lost savings of $860,000. He said the company has suffered an additional loss of “hundreds of thousands of dollars” attributable to exchange rate changes favoring the Euro over U.S. dollars.
Grow said he believes the accident in Oregon refutes complaints by Varian that the ordinance caused unnecessary delays.
“I endorse wind power,” Grow said. But he added that the tragedy in Oregon “gives pause and gives credibility to the reason behind having the ordinance. It took time to put a reasonable ordinance in place.”
By Richard Gaines , Staff writer
30 August 2007
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