In the middle of Tropical Storm Irene, Alicia Hunt was staring at her computer and cheering for the wind to blow faster. As the storm settled over Medford, she monitored a website that calculates how much energy a city-owned wind turbine is producing.
“It made the same amount of electricity that a house in Medford would use for a month,’’ said Hunt, Medford’s energy efficiency coordinator.
Medford, which was one of the first area communities to build a wind turbine, is part of a growing number of cities that are taking advantage of state subsidies to construct renewable energy towers. Some, like Medford’s 100-kilowatt tower, produce a modest amount of power each year and are less than 150 feet in height. Other turbines, such as Ipswich’s 1,600-kilowatt wind generator that started producing electricity in May, rise as high as 400 feet and cost more than $4 million to build.
“It’s pennies from heaven, the turbine is just spinning and saving you money. It’s a no-brainer,’’ said Medford Mayor Michael J. McGlynn, who oversaw the construction of Medford’s 131-foot-high wind turbine in 2009.
Medford’s turbine, which is visible from Interstate 93, has saved the town more than $25,000 on its electrical bills since it was built with $550,000 in state funds. It provides about 10 percent of the power to a middle school.
These days, city and town officials are lining up to talk to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. The quasi-public agency was created by the state in 2008, and is funded by residential ratepayers who draw electricity from utility companies and some municipal light plants that have opted into the program. On average, residential electricity customers pay an extra 29 cents a month to fund the center. It provides full funding to public and private interests for site assessments and feasibility studies, reports that range in cost from $65,000 to $90,000. It also provides up to $400,000 for wind turbine design and construction.
To date, 27 large wind turbines have been constructed across the state, four north of Boston. But feasibility studies show there’s enough wind to provide power in Lynn, Swampscott, Salem, Beverly, Gloucester, and Wenham, where wind speeds average 13.4 miles an hour over a year. Communities closer to the ocean are better suited than the Merrimack Valley, because the winds are stronger, said Andy Brydges, program director for renewable energy generation at the center.
Brydges said economics is the main reason why more cities and towns are considering building wind turbines.
“Towns are desperate for ways to stabilize and save on their municipal electric bills, and renewable energy is a great way to do both of those things,’’ said Brydges.
But not everyone is as bullish as Brydges on the subject.
In Salem, former city councilor Kevin Harvey is leading a group of residents who oppose the city’s plan to build a $4.2 million, 382-foot-high wind turbine on Winter Island, just down the road from the Salem Willows neighborhood.
“It would be a monstrosity,’’ said Harvey.
He said he believes the noise from the wind whipping against the turbine’s blades, which could disturb sleep, would change the quality of life in the oceanfront neighborhood. Harvey endorses renewable energy but said wind turbines should be placed more than 1 mile from homes.
For cities to be eligible for state subsidies, wind turbines cannot exceed more than 10 decibels above the background, or ambient, noise. Salem’s energy and sustainability manager, Paul Marquis, said a proposed turbine would meet sound regulations and cause minimal disturbance on the island, a 38-acre recreational park. The proposed turbine would be built a few hundred yards away from the Salem Harbor Power Station coal- and oil-burning plant, which has a 500-foot smokestack.
According to Salem officials, the wind turbine could generate as much as $700,000 in new annual revenue. The financial benefit of a wind turbine varies among municipalities based on the size and cost of the turbine, the length of the loan that communities take out to pay for the wind machines, the amount of electricity generated, and the quantity of surplus electricity communities sell to electric power utilities.
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll said she planned to meet with members of the neighborhood.
“This would be the first city-owned wind turbine so it’s understandable that there would be questions and concerns,’’ she said.
In nearby Swampscott, town officials announced last month preliminary plans to build a $3 million, 335-foot-high wind turbine behind the middle school. The proposed turbine would generate about $240,000 in new revenue for the town, and would power about 30 percent of the middle school and the nearby Little League field complex.
“We never would have approached this if we didn’t have the grant opportunity, and there’s a general interest in renewable energy and decreasing our fossil fuel use,’’ said Victoria Masone, Swampscott’s assistant town engineer.
Further north, visitors could notice a change in Gloucester’s skyline in the coming years. As many as five turbines have been proposed. While the city is considering building at least one, other proposals have come from private companies such as Varian Semiconductor, West Gloucester Wind, and Whole Foods.
In May, Ipswich residents marked the opening of their wind turbine with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a trumpet chorus from Ipswich High School. The $4.2-million turbine is owned by the Ipswich Light Department and the town’s public schools.
Tim Henry, director of the light department, said the turbine will provide 3 percent of the town’s electrical needs, while also saving the schools around $800,000 in electrical bills over the next 20 years.
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