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Harnessing the winds of change  

Eleanor Tillinghast, president of Green Berkshires, an advocacy group that has opposed wind projects throughout the state, said the Charlestown center is “part of a larger problem of the administration taking a significant amount of money from the pockets of Massachusetts taxpayers and ratepayers to fund boutique projects that are not going to make a difference to our long-term electricity profile or a healthy economic future.’’

Credit:  By David Abel, The Boston Globe, boston.com 12 March 2012 ~~

It is the Achilles heel of wind power: When the blades on a large turbine break, it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to arrange the cranes, technicians, and replacement parts to fix them.

The expense rises when the failure occurs offshore, making the reliability of a turbine vital to wind projects such as those planned off Cape Cod.

But the sprawling Wind Technology Testing Center in Charlestown, built with state and federal dollars at a cost of about $40 million, aims to help the wind industry develop turbines better able to survive gale-force winds, blizzards, and other tests of nature. It is the first facility in the nation where manufacturers can put their blades, castings, and steel towers through the motions, and state officials and contractors said the year-old center is allowing manufacturers to build larger, more powerful, and cost-effective turbines.

“For a fleet of a thousand wind turbines, we’re seeing 50 to 100 that need major work because of reliability failures within two to five years,’’ said Rahul Yarala, the center’s executive director. “Our goal is to have less than one failure over that time with the same number of turbines.’’

Yarala said the center has received an increasing number of requests from companies to assess turbines in its three testing bays, which stabilize the blades with a combined 60 tons of steel and 1,500 cubic feet of concrete. The center has tested four blades since it opened last May and plans to test as many as 12 a year, with the goal of ensuring turbines can generate power without failing for 20 years.

Among the successes so far: The center has helped build a turbine blade that will weigh about three tons less than existing blades, making a turbine potentially 25 percent more efficient, Yarala said.

“Everyone’s now going to try to use these kinds of blades,’’ he said. “It could have a significant impact on the industry.’’

Critics of federal and state efforts to promote renewable energy argue that the 300-foot-long building beside Boston Harbor is a boondoggle that has wasted taxpayer money. They say the state’s use of $13 million from the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust, a pool of money amassed from surcharges on utility bills, bypassed the traditional legislative process that would have allowed for debate on whether the center made good use of public dollars.

“People from Pittsfield to Nantucket are paying a surcharge on their electric bills for something they have no say about,’’ said Robert A. Rio, a senior vice president of governmental affairs at the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a trade association of businesses. “This is a case of the government picking winners and losers. I don’t see any benefit here for the ratepayers.’’

Eleanor Tillinghast, president of Green Berkshires, an advocacy group that has opposed wind projects throughout the state, said the Charlestown center is “part of a larger problem of the administration taking a significant amount of money from the pockets of Massachusetts taxpayers and ratepayers to fund boutique projects that are not going to make a difference to our long-term electricity profile or a healthy economic future.’’

But Yarala, other state officials, and contractors testing turbine blades at the new center said the project has already borne fruit and is on target to cover its operating costs of about $2 million within the next two years. Companies pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to do extended testing. The price of each test is negotiated.

They say that the facility, through an increasing number of structural and duration tests that bend and stress turbine blades over, in some cases, a period of months, has enabled companies to make their equipment lighter, more aerodynamic, and less likely to buckle from an abrupt stop or a powerful storm.

“With the center, we have positioned ourselves to be at the forefront of this technology moving forward,’’ said Rick Sullivan, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “This facility solidifies Massachusetts’ leadership in clean energy and innovation, and we believe it will help generate the next generation of blade technology and give Massachusetts an edge in the future.’’

On a recent tour of the testing area, large curtains from the 80-foot-high ceiling separated different turbines, veiling the new contours and composites shaping competitors’ prototypes, each with more than 150 sensors attached to measure movement, acceleration, and stress.

The tests use weights and motors to approximate loads on the blades, which are flexed in as many as six directions. An alarm rings if the stress is found to be too great and the blade nears the point of rupturing.

Tom Nemila, manager of product development testing for California-based Clipper Windpower Technology, said the center provided a big benefit to his company. Previously, he would have sent turbines by boat, at significant cost and time, for testing at less sophisticated facilities in Europe.

As he prepared to watch his company’s latest prototype get put through the paces in Charlestown, Nemila explained the complexities of a turbine blade, which he said are far more difficult to design than the wing of an aircraft.

“Having a world-class facility like this in the United State is really huge for us,’’ he said. “I’ve been in the wind industry since 1985, and I’m proud to finally have a true lab here to evaluate these large blades. It was absolutely right to fund this.’’

Jens Lillesoe, a test engineer for LM Windpower in Denmark, said his company could have done tests in his country, where wind power provides nearly a quarter of the power.

But with many of the company’s customers and manufacturers in North America, he said the facility in Charlestown will make it easier to spur development of new turbines and promote sales in the United States.

“This is changing the industry here,’’ he said.

Source:  By David Abel, The Boston Globe, boston.com 12 March 2012

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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