For several years now we have heard the pro-wind – anti-wind voices reinforced by a team of oil doomsayers and manufacturing reps. On the anti-wind wind side we have the environmentalist and those that hate the idea of industrializing the Plymouth-Kingston skyline. Both sides tout the latest findings and every article that might support their position. The anti-wind people just gained additional reinforcement as the New York Times article Sunday, Aug. 1, exposed $5,000 payoffs to keep people quiet about neighbor wind machine noise. Some call it hush money.
In the spirit of full disclosure I need to tell you I am personally involved in the renewable energy industry. Someday I might even make a living at it. I work in the industry teaching the technology at community colleges and the business strategy at Northeastern. I have worked on real wind turbine installations and I design and install solar.
The giant wind farms of the Midwest are wonderful ways to generate electricity. Thousands of jobs have been created for initial installations and ongoing maintenance servicing all those moving parts. At the economy of scale for hundreds of machines, those big boys are installed at 20-30 percent of the price of a single machine here on the on the South Shore.
There is clearly a place for a noisy $5 million wind machine, but does it really need to be in town? I can already hear the voices saying “This guy, Fred, is one of those ‘not in my backyard’ people.” Well OK, so I don’t want the $5000 hush money, and I don’t want to industrialize the skyline, and I don’t want all of my renewable energy dollars spent on one or two giant wind machines that might create only a half dozen new town worker service jobs. I don’t want the night sky full of flashing lights. To both sides of the wind argument, I say you have battled for so long and for so many years, the fundamental economics of municipal renewable energy has changed.
Let’s talk about jobs. The wind people talk about how many jobs will be created installing these giant turbines. In fact, when you only install one or two machines the manufacturers fly in some workers who stay at a local motel for a couple of months and when the job is done they are gone. Perhaps a few jobs for excavators, but not many local jobs, and not for very long. So, let’s look at solar. Solar electricity that is – not solar hot water.
With solar we create hundreds of jobs across all labor trades. We need electricians, white-collar workers, excavators, carpenters, professionals, engineers, roofers, students of solar azimuth, and more. We should deploy solar on bus stops, municipal buildings, carports, and open fields. We should think solar electric recharging points for next year’s electric cars. Try that with a windmill.
We can start with town buildings, bus shelters, town maintenance buildings, even open town land and landfills. I propose that we do the arithmetic in a sincere and open manner as we incrementally reduce our municipal electric bill. With solar, the output is predictable down to the kilowatt-hour. Try predicting the wind. This year’s favorable weather shows the solar system on Sacred Heart High School in Kingston at 90 percent of projected annual production. Consider that this is only August. The system has zero downtime since it was installed. I know because I monitor it online.
From a utility standpoint the idea of distributed solar energy does not require years of study for connection to NStar or National Grid. The utilities encourage solar in support of their own strategic plan. Then, through the rules of Net-Metering they actually pay us directly for whatever we cannot use – no middleman, no third party investors taking their share – they pay us! Duh.
Want more? Solar makes no noise, and after 25 years every solar installation no matter how small or large can still be generating 80 percent of its design rating. Very few wind machines last more than 20 years – just too many moving parts. Solar has zero moving parts.
Maintenance? Well solar isn’t totally maintenance free; somebody should check it now and then and perhaps make some adjustments to mitigate utility tariff changes. Perhaps a seasonal check might be in order to see if the glass is dirty. At our latitude the 42-degree pitch is all but self-cleaning. A recent check of Sacred Heart High School shows the glass is still squeaky clean.
I like the idea that we could install solar incrementally, turn it on incrementally, and pay for it incrementally. We would be in full control of how we spend the town’s money, and we can make strategic decisions on where and when we build small and large systems. These benefits include the idea that we can start reaping our renewable energy now! We can start eliminating our electric bills as fast as we want, and we can start selling some energy back to the utilities by the end of this year. Yes, 2010.
I like the idea that solar can be invisible on flat supermarket or school rooftops. However, many solar users want the world to see they are contributing to the green cause and actually want the systems visible. I like the idea that the costs for solar has been dropping fast, Five years ago we were paying $10 a watt for the hardware, now it is less than $2. Wind machines get more and more expensive. I like the way you see solar shops in California as frequently as we see Dunkin’ Donut stores in Massachusetts. I like that before cell towers came along the tallest structures in town were church steeples.
OK, let’s face it. There may be too much momentum to stop the wind machines from coming. For those advocates that point to our neighbor Hull as an example of what a municipality can do, I say Hull is an anomaly and it’s nice to go up there and see a big wind turbine. It’s nice to move up to a half mile away and see if you can still hear it. Let’s face it; it’s a local tourist attraction. I wonder how long this fascination will last with giant wind turbines all over the South Shore.
The July 31 Weekend edition of the Old Colony Memorial makes mention that the noise generated by the Falmouth turbine is really not that bad, it only sounds bad because before the machine the neighborhood was so quiet. Is anybody listening to this stuff? Am I am missing something?
There are so many other things to consider. How about the idea that when advocates for municipal wind equate electrical value, they plant the idea that each town building uses this many kilowatts and that building uses this much – hey, there is no way that our town buildings could be directly wired to wind energy. What really happens is that the electricity is sold to a broker of sorts and we get our cut to apply to our electric bill. We should equate the towns’ decision to install wind turbines as an investment – an investment that could really be installed in any windy spot on the planet. The idea that municipal buildings are directly hooked up to a wind turbine is smoke and mirrors.
I understand that a lot of people might be embarrassed about flip-flopping on the wind or no-wind issue. But you’re really not flip-flopping. Your position needs to change to optimize the town’s investment. And today – based on changing economics, SRECs, incentives and dropping prices – distributed solar is a better answer. And we can start right now!
For as long as the conversation about wind has been going on, market conditions have changed dramatically in favor of distributed solar. And think about big storm damage; everybody with solar can store a little bit of energy for safety requirements. Wow, that would change the triage of disaster recovery. The windmill would be long-gone.
Financially, rebates, tax incentives, and virtual credits known as Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) actually pay you more for each kilowatt then the utility charges for a kilowatt.
To the politicians who have taken strong positions for wind – I say, “Thanks for showing such strength; it’s good to know we have that.” No one is going to use the word “waffling” if you change to a better solution for the municipality. It’s August 2010; what are we waiting for?
OK, I can’t help myself. Just in case we continue with the folly and install these giant machines. I propose that Kingston and Plymouth classify wind energy as a natural resource. Like all natural resources, they are not evenly distributed. Texas has oil, West Virginia coal and Plymouth-Kingston wind. When somebody wants to drill oil the cost is more than just erecting a rig; they continue to pay for the right to tap the resource. The deep pocket investors that will install our machines – I really hope they don’t – are excited about ongoing revenue that goes into their pockets. Isn’t there an annuity-like opportunity here for the town? I travel around the country taking positions in support of wind energy. I have watched the experts work the market, articulate the financial issues, and debate social implications of the industry. I wish I knew it all, but I do know that we have a lot to learn about the big wind game.
I have only one more concern. Has anyone thought of how tall our church steeples will need to be in the future?
Fred Paris, of Plymouth, is a principal of The Wind Sun Institute. The Institute advocates career path changes with academic, technical, and business skills delivered by college professors. The Institute’s lifetime learning curriculum is focused on workforce development and project management in renewable energy markets.
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