Gloucester is one City Council vote away from joining much of the world in the rush to tap wind power.
That vote could come Tuesday, when Varian Semiconductor Equipment Associates is scheduled to offer for final approval what would be the largest wind-power system built so far in Massachusetts
Its twin towers would rise as high as 30-story buildings from two of the highest points on the island, 150 and 196 feet above the level of the sea in Blackburn Industrial Park.
The proposal was delayed twice already this year. The first delay, for six months, allowed the city to adopt a wind turbine zoning ordinance. The second, last month, was for two weeks following the collapse of a wind turbine in Oregon.
In the demand-driven global market for the machines, Rick Johnson, director of facilities for Varian, calculates the delay in ordering from FuhrlÄnder, the German manufacturer, cost Varian $1.1 million in “lost savings” and another $800,000 because of unfavorable adjustments in the exchange rate.
The council’s Planning and Development Committee approved the plans after a hearing Wednesday, setting up the vote next Tuesday.
If allowed, Varian will spend about $11 million, buying, shipping and erecting the turbines. Varian anticipates the machines will satisfy about half of its enormous appetite for electricity. The company’s electric bill this year is projected to be $2.3 million.
Johnson said the company expects to reduce that bill by $1.1 million a year and earn another $500,000 by selling power and renewable energy certificates, a government program to encourage companies to invest in wind and solar power.
Varian, the city’s largest employer with more than 1,100 employees, is mobilizing to assure it leaves Tuesday’s council meeting ready to place the order that could set turbine blades whirring in 12 to 16 months, Johnson said.
The presentation “will be in Technicolor and high definition,” promised Michael Faherty, Varian’s attorney for the permitting process.
He said the presentation would feature a computer-enhanced simulation of the helicopter test conducted two weeks ago. Images of the copter hovering over Varian to demonstrate the towers’ height will be superimposed onto images of the city.
Before the helicopter returned to Beverly Airport, a hearing scheduled for that night was shelved at Faherty’s request because of the collapse of a smaller turbine in Oregon four days earlier. The accident killed a worker, the nation’s first wind turbine fatality.
On Wednesday night, as promised, Faherty briefed the committee on the accident. It remains under investigation, but Faherty said human, not mechanical error, is the suspected cause.
An Aug. 29 report in the The Oregonian quotes a spokesman for the manufacturer, Siemans, as saying, “It doesn’t appear there was a structural design issue.”
The newspaper quoted a mechanical engineer with the federal National Renewable Energy Lab’s Wind Technology Center as saying, “It’s not impossible, but it’s extremely unlikely for a tower to be at fault on its own and to buckle and fall.”
Faherty told the committee that the failed turbine, one of 1,140 along the Columbia River Gorge, had been installed this summer and was undergoing a routine inspection when the accident occurred.
“There is suspicion of human error not to engage the brake on the blades while repairing or servicing,” Faherty said.
In the early stages of Wednesday’s presentation, some residents raised concerns about the safety and appearance of towers tall enough to be visible on clear days from as far away as the Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast.
Stevan Goldin appeared to urge the committee to hold the company to the recommendation of its environmental consultant, Woodlot Alternatives, and order additional research into bird behavior in the vicinity of the towers.
Woodlot’s study concluded there was “low risk of avian mortality” – in the neighborhood of 2.19 birds a year – based on “existing data” but hedged because of the “relative youth of the industry.”
Faherty scoffed at Goldin’s demand, noting that the only significant local bird activity in Varian’s vicinity is “the sea gulls that fly out of town to their night haunt in the Babson Reservoir.”
By Richard Gaines , Staff writer
14 September 2007
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