UTILITIES/Wind turbine expands local electricity supply
The air in Hull, Mass., is electric. Last December, the town began operating a 660-kilowatt wind turbine, producing 3 percent of the town’s electricity supply and reducing the town’s dependence on outside power vendors.
The project has generated local buzz as well as interest from other communities, says John MacLeod, operations manager for the Town of Hull Municipal Light Plant (MLP). “This is the largest commercial turbine on the East Coast,” he explains. “A lot of people that are looking to put in turbines want to come out and see this one. It’s kind of a show-and-tell turbine.”
Situated 18 miles southeast of Boston, Hull is a coastal town of 12,000 residents. In 1998, several residents interested in renewable energy encouraged MLP to replace a windmill that had — until 1997 — stood at the town’s high school on Windmill Point. (The unit was made possible through a grant to the school, and, during the windmill’s 10-year tenure, it benefited the school only.) “It was a 40-kilowatt unit on an 80-foot tower,” MacLeod says. “It didn’t get the maintenance that it needed, and it destroyed itself.”
MacLeod was not interested in developing another demonstration-size project. However, wind studies and economic analysis showed that a commercial-scale turbine could work and benefit all the town’s ratepayers. Following public meetings, the town board approved plans for a new turbine, and, in January 2001, MLP issued a request for proposals.
Last April, MLP selected Vestas-American Wind Technology, based in North Palm Springs, Calif., to supply and install the wind turbine. Erected in 10 days, the unit rests on a 150-foot tower, only yards away from the site of the old windmill.
Three 90-foot blades rotate in the wind, turning the shaft that powers the unit’s electric generator. Based on Windmill Point’s average wind speed of 13 miles per hour, MacLeod projects that the turbine will produce 1.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually.
“We just take that energy and put it right back into our distribution system,” MacLeod says. “Whatever it produces, it keeps us from having to buy that power.”
Already, MLP has stopped billing the town for electricity for streetlights and traffic signals. “That was a cost of about $55,000 a year,” MacLeod explains. “We’re no longer billing the town for that because we’re taking that power off the turbine and using that to theoretically power these items. We’re also saving approximately $50,000 per year in my department on power that we no longer have to buy.”
According to MacLeod, MLP pays 8.5 cents per kilowatt hour to purchase electricity, and it spends 3.5 cents per kilowatt hour to produce electricity with the wind turbine. The department paid $700,000 to purchase and install the wind turbine, and, based on projected savings, it should recoup those costs in seven years or less.
“When we did the economics of the turbine, we used the lowest possible numbers for what it would produce,” MacLeod says. “It’s already doing about 10 percent better than we estimated. So, if it does better, the payback period’s shorter.”
Based on the turbine’s performance and widespread public support for the project, MLP is considering installation of a second turbine by the end of this year. “We’re going to monitor it for awhile and watch it, but we do have a lot of requests from a lot of people in town to put up more,” MacLeod says.
Windpower projects exist in some form — as planned projects, under construction or as operating units — in 30 states. Hull’s turbine is one of two operating in Massachusetts. Another project — a wind farm consisting of 16 turbines — is under construction on Brodie Mountain in western Massachusetts, and a developer has proposed an offshore wind farm with 170 turbines in Nantucket Sound. The latter project has met with opposition, primarily because of public worries that the area’s pristine waters would be compromised.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, aesthetic impact is a common concern associated with wind turbines, as is rotor noise and even bird deaths. However, MacLeod notes that Hull has had no problems related to those concerns. In fact, the town has received only one criticism of its turbine — a resident complained that a strobe light atop the tower (required by the Federal Aviation Administration) was visually disturbing.
For more information about wind-power, visit DOE’s Web sites for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (www.nrel.govclean_energy/wind.html) and the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network (www.eren.doe.gov/RE/wind.html). For a summary of U.S. wind turbine projects by state, visit www.awea.org, the Web site for the American Wind Energy Association, based in Washington, D.C.