To test the town’s appetite for renewable energy, Mashpee town officials decided to capitalize on a state grant and erect two wind turbines in the middle of Heritage Park on Route 130.
Once the two turbines – each 30 feet tall – were installed three years ago, the project helped reduce the energy costs at what was then the Mashpee Chamber of Commerce building. In January 2012, town officials calculated that the 1.5 kilowatt turbines were producing 32 kilowatt hours a month in savings, or about 6 percent of the building’s electrical needs.
The building is now occupied by the town’s Human Services Department, which uses the building five days a week instead of the part-time hours the chamber of commerce kept. Town officials haven’t calculated how much the building’s new tenants are saving, though it’s fair to assume the tiny amount of savings seen two years ago is even less today.
But, unlike the controversial industrial-sized turbines in the neighboring town of Falmouth, these smaller, quieter, no-flicker turbines haven’t been the subject of complaints with neighbors clamoring for them to be dismantled.
And that may be because the turbines in Mashpee are vertical-axis turbines, not the huge horizontal turbines most of us associate with wind energy.
With vertical-axis turbines, the wind-catching blades spin like a top. The blades of the more familiar horizontal turbines spin like a propeller.
And out of the contrasting experiences of Mashpee and Falmouth, an interesting question emerges: Are vertical-axis turbines the future of wind energy on Cape Cod?
“They are an easy, unobtrusive way to get into wind. But my own opinion is no, they aren’t the answer. It would be great if they were, but I don’t think so,” Mashpee Assistant Town Manager Tom Mayo said.
The vertical-axis turbines on the market today, Mayo said, don’t generate enough juice to meet the power needs of municipalities. And while industry experts agree, some say that doesn’t mean they won’t play a role in meeting future energy needs on a smaller scale.
“The local context matters a lot. But, in the big picture, we need to develop new technologies for electricity than can be distributed locally. One big improvement would be enhancing distributed generation,” explained Jennie Stephens, associate professor of environmental science and policy at Clark University.
By “distributed generation,” Stephens is talking about electricity generated and consumed on a neighborhood-level, as opposed to relying on a centralized grid.
“It gives people and communities more control and engagement with energy systems. There is a lot of social and cultural value with that kind of distributed generation. Vertical-axis turbines fit in that category,” Stephens said with the caveat that “there’s no one technology that’s going to be the right fit everywhere.”
Mateo Chaskel, vice president of operations for the New York City-based Urban Green Energy, a global leader in renewable energy development, said smaller vertical-axis turbines “will increasingly become a part of the solution.”
“We’ll start to see more of them powering households and small businesses because they “empower individual consumers to manage their own energy more than they have in the past,” Chaskel said.
The most visible and well-known vertical-axis turbines ring the Philadelphia Eagles football stadium.
Installed by UGE several years ago, those turbines operate in tandem with a solar-array to cut down on energy costs at the stadium, Chaskel said.
It’s an example of a trend in renewable energy development where power-users erect turbines and solar panels to complement each other.
Allen Giles, president of the Sandwich-based renewable energy company Turning Mill Energy, said his company is beginning to see the same trend.
“Vertical axis turbines
that sell well are the 4-kilowatt turbines, which can help run a small house, but doesn’t make electricity all the time. But if you marry solar with vertical-axis turbines, you’re spreading the costs between the two,” Giles said.
“A lot of research and development is being done now on how to combine small wind with solar so that the integrated solution works more efficiently and therefore is more cost-efficient,” he said.
Still, Giles said, he’s skeptical vertical-axis turbines will be a big hit in a region as densely populated as Cape Cod where proposals to erect even small vertical-axis turbines are met with the same resistance as proposals for industrial-sized horizontal turbines.
“Whenever you talk about wind energy, people think large. Small wind today is just as difficult as the permitting for a big turbine. We tried to get a permit for a small 4-kilowatt turbine in Chatham. It was going to be installed on a flagpole, 50-feet high. And everybody went crazy,” Giles said.
Another challenge, Giles said, is to contend with those who consider them eyesores, even if some vertical-axis turbines look like sculptured pieces of art.
“Some people say they look like an egg-beater and are ugly,” he said.
Yet, as Stephens noted, successful small demonstration projects like the one in Mashpee could help break the negative associations opponents of horizontal turbines have created.
Or, as Mayo put it: “The moral of the story is: They don’t generate much power. Their main benefit has been to spark the renewable energy discussion in Mashpee.”
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