Boston’s harbor islands, known for blinking lighthouses, century-old forts, and rustic campsites, could soon acquire another claim to fame, as a showcase for clean, green energy.
State officials have charted an extensive plan to dot the 34 windswept islands and nearby stretches of harborfront with big and small wind turbines, solar electric panels, and other kinds of renewable energy installations.
Already, environmental agencies have begun work to replace the diesel-electric generator at Georges Island with one powered by biodiesel derived from plants. It is part of a $3.1 million overhaul of the island visitors center that would also include solar panels and geothermal wells that pump ground water to provide heating and cooling.
Small windmills are being installed next spring to power the marina and pier lights at Spectacle Island, which gets about 20 percent of its annual power from solar panels on the visitor center roof.
Ian A. Bowles, chairman of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and the state’s top environmental official, is pushing the agency to study installing 300-foot-high wind turbines at two agency sewage-handling facilities, one on Nut Island at the tip of Quincy and a second near the Fore River Bridge in Weymouth.
Next month, construction crews are set to begin installing solar panels on the treatment plant the authority runs at Deer Island, which handles the sewage of 2 million Boston-area residents and businesses.
While a sewage plant may sound like an unlikely venue for green power, the Deer Island complex gets nearly one-quarter of its energy from renewable sources, including methane gas collected from decomposing sludge and a hydroelectric turbine spun by the force of treated water rushing into the 9-mile-long harbor discharge pipe.
“What I’d like to have is, by the end of this administration, to have all these islands powered by clean power,” Bowles, an appointee of Governor Deval Patrick, said in a recent interview as he piloted his water-skiing boat from a Charlestown marina out to Spectacle. “We’re really looking at making this a clean-energy showcase.”
Federal Aviation Administration officials recently gave the MWRA clearance to build a turbine at Nut Island, similar to two operating in Hull, determining that the turbine would not present a navigation hazard for airplanes or disrupt radar around Logan International Airport, FAA spokesman Jim Peters said.
MWRA officials are also considering a turbine at the Intermediate Pump Station on the North Weymouth waterfront, which the FAA is still reviewing, Peters said.
While many of the windswept harbor islands would be ideal locations for wind turbines from an energy-production standpoint, Bowles said other proposals, including a possible wind turbine at Deer Island, have run afoul of FAA rules that ban turbines where their spinning blades could interfere with airport radar.
Besides being a distinctive and visible locale for green power, the harbor islands are also a place where green power – which typically costs more than conventional electricity generated by gas, coal, or nuclear power – makes economic sense because of the high cost of stringing underwater electric cables to the island or sending out fuel oil on barges.
The vision of the harbor as a haven for clean energy is benefiting from the availability of $5.3 million in funding being put up by Excelerate Energy LLC to offset the environmental impact of the offshore facility the Texas company is building, where tankers will unload liquefied natural gas into a pipeline on the harbor floor. A second offshore LNG facility developer, Suez Energy North America, is also promising $5.3 million once it begins construction in 2009 or later.
Dave Murphy, operations director for Mayor William J. Phelan of Quincy, said the mayor generally supports renewable energy. But “the people of the Houghs Neck neighborhood would have to accept the proposal and understand what the MWRA would offer as a community benefit before Mayor Phelan would consider” backing a 328-foot-high turbine, Murphy said.
E. Bruce Berman Jr. – director of strategy and communication for Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, a Boston environmental group that campaigns for upgrades to the harbor and the islands – said he welcomed Bowles’s push for clean energy.
“If you could do it right, it could be a real plus for everybody,” Berman said. “I also can’t think of anything that would be better than to use the leftover fryolator oil from the snack bar on Georges Island for biodiesel power out there.”
Spectacle Island was once home to a giant city dump and a factory that turned horse cadavers into glue and other products. It was turned into a major harbor park using dirt excavated during Boston’s $14.6 billion Big Dig highway project, which capped the trash and expanded the island to 105 acres with two 150-foot hills.
The 32 solar panels on the roof of the Spectacle visitor center, which opened two years ago, produce 8,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually for the center – which served 85,000 people this summer, up 50 percent from a year earlier – and island maintenance vehicles that run on rechargeable batteries.
By next summer, Department of Conservation and Recreation officials hope to add another green energy facility there, small wind turbines to light up the five pairs of pier lights, and marina slips.
“What we’re talking about doing with renewable energy really fits in with the whole reclamation and restoration of the islands,” said Susan Kane, the district manager overseeing the harbor islands for the department. “Their history is they have been so abused and neglected over the years, and now we’re bringing them back. Clean energy fits so well with what we’re trying to do out here.”
By Peter J. Howe
26 October 2007
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