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As wind industry goes big, this New England startup looks to shrink turbines

Skyscraper-high blades are increasingly standard on wind farms, but Pecos Wind Power thinks its small, distributed turbines will be a better fit in Vermont.

Vermont has had a contentious relationship with wind power – projects there have faced fierce local opposition over land use, aesthetics, and other concerns.

A New England startup is betting its small turbines will be an easier sell in the state, offering a potential complement or alternative to rooftop solar but with a much lower profile than conventional wind farm blades.

Pecos Wind Power, based in Somerville, Massachusetts, won the DeltaClimeVT energy business accelerator competition last year, leading to a partnership with Vermont’s municipal power wholesaler. The company is developing an 85-kilowatt turbine that will stand about 120 feet tall with a rotor diameter of 30 meters – closer to a roller coaster than the skyscraper-sized towers now standard in the industry.

“The goal is to be cost-competitive with distributed solar,” said Will Hersey, vice president of business development at Pecos. “That’s our northern star.”

Key to that, he said, will be developing a turbine with a capacity factor – its average output as a percentage of its maximum output – on par with large turbines. They’re being built for low wind speeds, down to 5 meters per second.

The company plans to market the turbines to commercial customers such as businesses, schools and municipal facilities behind the meter, and Northeast distribution utilities for front-of-the-meter projects.

Pecos is working with the Vermont Public Power Supply Authority to develop a community wind project for its members. Officials are planning to site three to five turbines throughout the members’ service territories, then purchase that power from Pecos and sell it to members through power purchase agreements. Members could then sell it to residents under a community energy tariff that’s currently in development. Unlike typical community energy projects, a subscriber wouldn’t have to live in the specific territory being served by the project.

“What’s special about this project and the concept, the model that we’re trying to prove is that the power generated in these communities actually serves these communities,” Hersey said.

While the wind industry has boomed in the United States, most of that growth has been in the large-scale sector. “Distributed” wind turbines accounted for about 1.1 gigawatts of capacity in 2019, according to an estimate by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Of the 18 megawatts of distributed wind installed in 2019, 1.4 MW was from small projects – those with turbines of up through 100 kW – according to the lab. The American Wind Energy Association says the country is home to more than 100 GW of wind total.

Vermont had 11 MW of distributed wind in 2019, putting it ahead of several other New England states but behind Rhode Island’s 45 MW and Massachusetts’ 85, according to the national lab’s study.

Pecos plans to offer customers 20-year power purchase agreements with no upfront costs. In addition to the Vermont Public Power Supply Authority project, the company is planning a single-turbine project with Vermont’s Burlington Electric Department, as well as projects with the State University of New York at Morrisville and Northeastern Junior College in Colorado.

The fact that the turbines are serving the communities they’re sited in could help secure community support, said Julia Leopold, head of communications at VPPSA. “If you can directly correlate the benefit of the project to the community, then the community will be a bit more receptive to it,” she said, noting large renewable projects are sometimes sited in communities while their power is sold elsewhere.

“We’ve talked about community solar for a number of years,” said Ken Nolan, VPPSA’s general manager. “Wind is a different generation profile, typically more energy associated with it per unit you’re putting up. So we started to think about how we could take their small-scale turbine dispersed over our utility space and turn that into kind of a community energy project.”

Vermont’s mountainous terrain means solar isn’t possible everywhere, so wind could be an alternative for some towns. Nolan added that the aggregation plan could open the opportunity to essentially sell power across utility lines, through power purchase contracts with VPPSA. Unlike utilities with large service territories, municipal utilities may have a more difficult time finding appropriate project sites. Through arrangements like this, they could indirectly purchase power from projects in other territories.

“I think part of what we’re trying to do is make the transition to clean energy in the most affordable way possible, so we’re always looking for opportunities,” Nolan said. VPPSA views small-scale wind as comparable to net metering, but with cheaper energy costs. “I don’t see it ever being a major contributor to the total kilowatt-hour needs of the state, but I think it is a component to helping us meet our needs, and something that customers will want to buy into,” he said.

Still, officials will have to work to get support from communities that feel they’ve lost out with large wind projects.

“The communities up here are extremely sensitive to wind power due to the fact that there are two large industrial wind sites surrounding us,” said John Morley, village manager of the Orleans Electric Department, referring to wind farms in Lowell and Sheffield. Development plans and tax deals for the site hosts left surrounding communities like the ones in his service territory with the visual impact but no benefits, he said. “It really pitted some towns against one another.”

VPPSA’s leadership has begun discussions with Morley for a possible turbine in his service territory, which covers parts of four towns. A smaller project like this that directly serves the community “has a lot better chance” of getting community approval than the larger projects, Morley said.

But he’s also not committed yet. He’s considering various forms of generation to increase the renewable profile in his service territory, including solar and battery storage, as well as methane. Before any projects with VPPSA go forward, they need approval from the board, which includes Morley and other representatives from each of the member municipalities.

“To see some additional distribution of resources, not having everything be solar, I think is going to be helpful for the Vermont grid,” said Chad Farrell, founder and CEO of Encore Renewable Energy, a Vermont solar developer. Vermont needs to diversify its generation to keep its grid secure, he said.

By providing generation when the sun isn’t shining, wind “is very complementary” to solar, Farrell said. This opens the possibility to offer better power purchase agreements to site hosts. As project costs drop, and since those renewables don’t have associated fuel costs, he expects these power purchase agreements to become more prevalent going forward.

“I think as we move forward with all of our decarbonization efforts, we increase electrical load across the board,” Farrell said. The higher load that comes with electric transit and heating and cooling means that for generation needs, “it’s going to be an all of the above,” he said.

For Pecos, the work with VPPSA comes at the beginning of a longer-term plan to bring its technology to customers through partnerships with solar developers. Together, Hersey said, the wind developer and solar partners could offer electric customers a more well-rounded generation supply.

“For the clean energy future, we can’t just rely on solar,” he said. “We’re not trying to be competitive against solar. We’re trying to complement them.”

Hersey said the company hopes to have the prototype finished in about a year, with the VPPSA project planned to roll out after that.