Watch the little wind turbine at Burlington Electric Department and you’ll find, as often as not, its blades are stock-still.
Observers might also note that a steady south wind will set it spinning.
At those times, the Atlantic-Orient model 15/50 earns its keep – but as a demonstration project, not as a workhorse, said Ken Nolan, BED’s Chief Operating Officer on Monday.
“It was essentially given to us in 2000,” Nolan said. “People were excited about it.”
The 15/50 was originally planned to be installed at the city’s wastewater treatment plant near Perkins Pier, but encountered tough bureaucratic and aesthetic headwinds, he added, so the structure was hauled inland to its present location at the edge of the Lake Champlain Barge Canal, a heavily polluted federal Superfund site.
The 15 kilowatt capacity turbine is the product of now-defunct Atlantic Orient Corporation, a Norwich company that benefited from U.S. Department of Energy research funding in the 1980s.
Standing near the base of the 80-foot tower with BED’s general manager, Neale Lunderville, Nolan pulled out a sheet of paper that charted the wind turbine’s output.
Performance has varied widely.
Only in 2002 did the machine achieve more than 6 percent efficiency – compared with about 30-percent efficiency attained by utility-scale turbines in Vermont, Nolan said.
The BED unit kicked out 27,558 kilowatt-hours in 2002, enough to serve the electrical needs of five average households in the Queen City. (The typical ratepayer goes through about 5,000 kWh per year).
Compared to solar power, “that’s equivalent to a small commercial array like you might see on a gas station or mom and pop store,” Nolan added.
Three photovoltaic trackers would register about the same annual production, according to Williston-based AllEarth solar.
Repairs and maintenance have kept it off-line for 29 months, or about one-third of its tenure in Burlington.
Lunderville said performance would have almost certainly been stronger with a taller tower – an unlikely scenario in downtown Burlington.
He also cited the turbine’s vintage: a design dating from the mid-1980s; a blueprint modified from Model E44, built by now-defunct Kansas-based Enertech Inc.
Period brochures tout the 15/50 as rugged and reliable “even in the harshest weather conditions,” from Siberia to West Bengal.
Lunderville’s retrospective view: “They were still learning how to put them together back then.”
A deafening clank from the top of the tower prompted at least one visitor at BED to consider fleeing for cover.
Had a blade spun itself free?
Nolan and Lunderville were unfazed.
“It shuts itself off to protect itself from high winds,” Nolan said.
On the ground, the wind seemed not to have risen to much more than a breeze. But with the turbine stilled, we could clearly see the fin-like tips to each of the three blades.
Paul Gipe, an energy consultant who maintains the Wind-Works.org website, explains that primitive sensors in the blade tips alert the 15/50 to ease back, or stop, when fast spinning threatens to damage the turbine.
“This design feature appeared on several American wind turbines of the era – all with similar results,” Gipe wrote. “It was not a reliable system for overspeed control and was otherwise problematic.”
That vexing legacy parallels the performance of subsequent companies that built the 15/50.
A family tree splinters:
• 1995: Vermont-based Atlantic Orient Corporation, in order to cut costs and take advantage of a weak Canadian dollar, forms Atlantic Orient Canada in Halifax, Nova Scotia, according to Windpower Monthly, an industry magazine.
• 2000: U.S. branch goes belly-up – about the same time BED takes delivery of its turbine.
• 2003: U.S. branch emerges from bankruptcy in late 2003, a year after the Burlington unit logged its most productive season on record. It moves headquarters from Vermont to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
• 2003: Transplanted, the U.S. company enters legal dispute with its former Canadian spin-off, which had been producing the 15/50 for about seven years. The Nova Scotia branch of the family, Atlantic Orient Canada, emerges victorious in the patent claims.
• 2014: Atlantic Orient Canada, for years a subsidiary of Seaforth Engineering, goes bankrupt.
Stan Mason, a former engineer with Seaforth, sounded pleasantly surprised last week when he picked up his phone at the Nova Scotia office of his energy consulting firm Watts Wind Energy.
“I’m familiar with the Burlington turbine – I’ve been down there to look at it,” Mason said. “My first thought when you called was, ‘Oh my God, it needs work.’”
Seaforth, he continued, sold its wind turbine business to a British Columbia firm that soon thereafter went bankrupt.
Mason confirmed what industry journals had characterized as Atlantic Orient’s inability to develop more efficient technologies.
He described surviving models – and there are dozens of them operating in the Maritime Provinces – as “finicky.”
Still, Mason added, “There are still people up here who work on them.”
Those mechanics exist in the U.S., too. In 2010, BED lowered its 15/50 for a $25,000 in-state overhaul and blade-replacement.
Does the Burlington utility have any long-range plans to retire its legacy model?
“Not unless it breaks,” Nolan said.
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