GARDNER – For more than a year, off Route 2 in Templeton, two wind turbines have been visible merrily spinning away, but a mile down the road, two others have remained idle, silent monuments on the horizon.
That may soon change. Diane Wiffin, director of public affairs for the state Department of Correction, said the two idle wind turbines at Gardner state prison could begin generating power in mid-July if all goes well. When the two turbines are activated, it will mean the state will have four turbines of the same type operating in the city. The other two are at Mount Wachusett Community College.
The two projects started together, but while the college’s turbines have been up and running since March 2011, the prison turbines have been up, but not running. Based on the college’s success, an opportunity to generate a significant amount of electricity over the past year has been lost.
The interest in getting the prison turbines operating has been high. State Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, said she has been following the prison project and would have liked to have seen it move forward more quickly because of the financial benefits to the state. She said she was told engineering issues were behind the delays.
“I don’t think anyone has specifically or consciously said, ‘Lets push this project off,’” she said. “Even though wind turbines have been around for a while, we’re still relatively new to this.”
The college and the prison both have two 1.65-megawatt wind turbines, but the installation at the prison has proved to be a more difficult task.
“We were waiting for National Grid to complete its work,” Ms. Wiffin said. “It was completed last week.”
Ms. Wiffin said the power company had to install a new line to its Park Street substation and make substation upgrades before it could connect the two prison turbines. The next step is a test for the turbines to ensure proper operation and safety.
“If it passes we can begin generating power,” she said.
The two turbines are expected to supply a large portion of the needs of the prison, helping reduce the more than $500,000 per year it costs to power the facility. But it has been a long road to get the job done.
The Department of Correction was granted money early in 2009 from the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust to begin design work for the two turbines. The completion date for the $10 million project was initially February 2011.
David Graves, a spokesman for National Grid, said a major difference between the Mount Wachusett Community College project and the prison one is the distance from the Park Street substation. As the crow flies, the college is about three-quarters of a mile away and the prison is about five-and-a-quarter miles.
“Also, the existing power line did not meet capacity standards,” he said.
The prison was opened 32 years ago, long before much of the technology needed for modern wind turbines was invented. Mr. Graves said National Grid had to install new lines to the substation to carry the load.
“That’s a very time-consuming process,” he said.
Mr. Graves said the additional design and engineering work needed for the project also pushed back the completion date.
Infrastructure challenges are still part of the installation of any green technology, as are site issues. Wind turbines are often installed in difficult-to-get-to areas because there is more wind on hilltops and less neighborhood opposition in isolated areas. Mr. Graves said laws have changed as well, requiring more testing to ensure safety and proper operation. He said that when the prison completes its tests, National Grid will do its own tests before the turbines go on line.
If the experience at Mount Wachusett Community College is any gauge, prison officials should expect good payback once the turbines are operating. The two prison turbines are just east of the prison near the High Ridge Wildlife Sanctuary.
Daniel M. Asquino, president of Mount Wachusett Community College, said he is quite satisfied with the performance of the college’s turbines, which run most of the time. Occasionally one is shut down for maintenance, but it is never off for long. Testing has shown both sites have more than enough wind to make the projects worthwhile.
“They’re doing great,” Mr. Asquino said. “They’ve exceeded our expectations.”
Mr. Asquino said if all goes well, the school should get many years of free electricity after the cost of construction is paid off. He said in April the normal energy costs are $60,000. The turbines paid for that and returned $17,000 to the school.
The college paid $9 million for the installation and received $4 million from the federal government to help pay for it. Mr. Asquino said the turbines should easily pay for that cost, but have given the college a bonus: enhancing its image as an institution trying to be more efficient.
The city is looking at a two-pronged energy plan. Initially it began assessing whether it could install a wind turbine at the Summit Industrial Park. Mayor Mark P. Hawke said that plan has been set aside temporarily as the city begins looking at two solar installations.
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