It’s an iconic view enjoyed by the throngs who flock to the Esplanade each day: the Longfellow Bridge stretching over the Charles River and the Zakim Bridge looming in the background. Now, the Museum of Science wants to add something new: wind turbines.
Museum officials are asking Boston and Cambridge officials for permission to erect nine wind turbines on the museum roof, a project they say will help educate the public and government agencies about the pros and cons of wind energy.
“Obviously, in a state like Massachusetts and in the nation, wind power is a hot and important topic,” said David Rabkin, the museum’s director of innovation, strategic partnerships, and sustainability, who is overseeing the project.
The turbines would produce some 20,000 kilowatt hours a year, enough to power three or four suburban homes, officials said, but not nearly enough to meet the museum’s electricity needs. They estimate that the turbines would save $3,000 on the museum’s $1 million annual power bill.
“We want to introduce the public to the thinking of wind turbines,” Rabkin said. “But we also want to know what are the practical problems we face in the Boston area with the use of them. . . . Cities are trying to develop zoning laws, and there is no good data.”
Five types of turbines would be installed, with none higher than the museum’s central tower, which stands 155 feet tall. The largest of the proposed turbines, nearly 30 feet tall with a blade span of 18 feet, would sit on top of the Mugar Omni Theater.
The proposed turbines would be dwarfed by the turbine at the IBEW union hall adjacent to the Southeast Expressway, which is 150 feet tall, and the proposed Cape Wind turbines in Nantucket Sound, which are planned to be 260 feet tall.
Still, the tallest of the museum’s proposed turbines is intended as a stark protrusion in the skyline, “silhouetted against the sky and highly visible from O’Brien Highway, the banks of the Charles, Longfellow Bridge, and even Route 93,” according to plans filed with the city of Boston.
The others, though smaller, are supposed to make an impact, too.
“I do hope they’ll be visible enough to make a statement,” Rabkin said.
Museum officials began looking at wind technology two years ago, hoping to supply enough power to run the facility.
But a study concluded that fully converting to wind power was not financially feasible, and museum officials decided to shift the focus of the project from cost savings to education. (With an installation cost of some $300,000, the turbines will pay for themselves in about 100 years, museum officials said.)
Information collected from the windmills would be included in an expanded exhibit on wind power, with information about engineering, environmental impact, and operational issues. In addition, data on building vibration and the effect of the devices on birds and bats would help cities draft zoning and building code regulations for installing residential wind turbines, museum officials said.
Rabkin has been quietly meeting with community groups for the past few months, describing the proposal and listening to neighbors’ concerns about noise and environmental impact.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Duane Lucia, president of the West End Community Center, who attended a meeting last week about the project. “It’s educational, and the fact that people are involved in giving feedback helps.”
The museum has pledged that if the windmills are excessively noisy or harmful to wildlife, they will be adjusted or possibly removed. “This is a learning experience,” Rabkin said. “Worst-case scenario, we’ll take them down.”
Boston’s Zoning Board of Appeal will hear the matter at its July 29 meeting.
The Cambridge Zoning Board has not scheduled a hearing, but Rabkin said he expects it will happen sometime later this summer.
If approved by the fall, the turbines could be installed and running a year from now.
The museum, which has about 1.6 million visitors each year, would not be the first to install a turbine. The Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland installed a 150-foot-tall wind turbine in 2006, and the Da Vinci Science Center in Allentown, Pa., has had one that is 102 feet tall since 2005.
By Tania deLuzuriaga
15 July 2008
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