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Wind power: the Hull story

 Posted by on October 15, 2008
Oct 152008

By Harriet Blake

The residents of Hull, Mass., literally have the wind at their back.

Taking advantage of their location on the far east end of the Boston Harbor, the town is making the most of wind power. As its devoted 11,000 residents will tell you, wind energy makes sense. It’s clean, abundant, inexhaustible and local. Today, with wind turbines on either side of town, Hull receives about 12-13 percent of its electricity from wind.

We recently paid a visit to Hull to see how this seacoast community has achieved wind power, an energy source that could be incorporated throughout the United States with the proper resources, know-how and mentality. Wind is a key ingredient in powering America off foreign oil and achieving an emissions-free energy system; its giant turbines, parts of which are made in the U.S., could become symbols of green success.

“I love them,” says Wendy Love, a 16-year Hull resident who works at Weinberg’s Bakery. “When it’s windy, they are louder, but they don’t bother me. If energy costs go high enough maybe the U.S. will become more green like in Europe.”

Geri Calos, manager at Weinberg’s as well as administrator for the Hull Nantasket Chamber of Commerce, says, “The chamber is really into the green movement and working on strategies for more alternative energy.”

Richard Miller, operations manager of the Hull Municipal Light Plant (HMLP), says the town’s people have been very supportive of wind as an alternative energy source. “There has been no resistance on the part of the residents,” he says.

“Hull is a leader in wind power,” he says, noting that everyday he receives calls from towns who want to learn more about wind.
Using wind is nothing new to Hull. The area has been at the forefront of the wind movement since the mid 1820s when the Hull peninsula was dubbed “Windmill Point” in historical archives.

Beginning in the mid 1980s, the town of Hull began using wind power to provide a portion of the community’s electricity, specifically the local high school. The town put in a 40 KW turbine on an 80-foot tower located next to the school. The school’s electric bills were reduced by more than 28 percent, saving the town about $21,000.

After a windstorm destroyed the turbine in 1997, a group of residents and high school teachers decided to find a way to repower the site. The project was incorporated into the school’s physics class and was supported by Hull Municipal Light Plant. Eager to take the project to the next level, the Citizen Advocates for Renewable Energy (CARE) was formed, led by residents Malcolm Brown and Andrew Stern, along with Hull Light.

CARE worked with the Renewable Energy Research Laboratory at U.Mass Amherst on wind-resource assessments, noise level and hardware issues. The engineering report was presented to residents in June 2000. The townspeople were in favor of the project and a bid went out to a number of turbine makers. The group chose Vestas, a Danish company based on their bid as well as the company’s success in Denmark, where about 20 percent of the country’s electricity is generated by wind. Vestas is now the largest turbine maker in the world.

Hull Wind 1 was erected by Hull Light December 2001 for $780,000. It stands 150-feet high with 90-feet blades, rotating at 28.5 RPM. It produces 1,597,963 KWh of electricity. CARE estimates that an average home uses about 6,000 KWh per year, so Hull Wind 1 generates enough electricity to power about 300 homes.

The project was a hit with residents who clamored for another. Hull Wind 2 got underway in 2003. Located on the opposite side of Hull on top of a landfill, the second larger windmill began operating in May 2006. It rotates at 15 RPM and generates 4,088,000 KWh’s, or about 700 homes. The town now has plans to install a set of four turbines offshore that would be enough to supply the entire town of Hull with electricity. Financing issues currently are being debated. According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, early estimates are close to $40 million, about 10 times as much as the first two mills combined. <!–nextpage–>

“Hull was fortunate in that we haven’t had to issue a bond to raise money for our [current] windmills,” Miller says. Hull Wind One was built using money from the town’s rate stabilization fund. Hull Wind Two was financed from a settlement that put about $2 million in the bank. “Not having to use bond money was a big help,” says Miller.

Each windmill took about four years to build from start to finish and were built about five years apart in strategic locations to make the best use of the wind on either side of town. Hull Municipal Light Plant operates and maintains the windmills. They also are responsible for billing customers.

The residents of Hull overwhelming support the mills. The few who are not on board have raised issues about noise, the flicker effect, aesthetics and wildlife.

The turbine blades make a soft, whirring sound. Teenager Aaron Capen, who works at Nantasket Paint & Hardware, says he lives in the shadow of Turbine 2. “If the turbine fell, it would hit my house. At night, I can hear the windmill – a soft, whooshing sound. It’s very soothing,” he says.

CARE co-founder Stern says the flicker effect — the shadows created by the rotating blades — bothers some people, much the way a strobe light might. One woman, who lives near the second mill, complained until she realized that by drawing her curtains during one part of the day, the flicker effect became a non-issue.

The windmills are not eyesores to the residents of Hull. The two windmills stand on either side of town, kind of propping up the town, like two bookends. Aesthetics, however, have been a key complaint in the nearby, proposed Cape Wind project. The proposal recommends 130 wind turbines to be located about five miles off the shores of Nantucket. The wind farm would provide electricity for all of Cape Cod and the nearby islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. It has been bitterly debated, with opponents arguing that the off-shore project will ruin the aesthetics of the area, and some saying it will harm fish habitat.

Ken Hackel, owner of Carousels and Ships gift shop, says it’s too bad Cape Wind is facing so much criticism on appearance. “Five miles is pretty far away to be bothered about aesthetics,” says Hackel (pictured left, seated).

Friend Ron Della Chiesa, a broadcaster and retired Dorchester deejay agrees. Both men like the windmills and don’t find them unpleasant to look at all. Chiesa, who has a local music program (Strickly Sinatra & Music America) , half-jokingly adds, “Maybe the sound of the windmills should be synchronized with classical music – we could hook up speakers.”

As for wildlife, local activist Stern says no birds have yet been killed by the mills’ blades. (The American Wind Energy Association says the concern over birds being killed by wind installations is a red herring.)

Stern is a longtime alternative energy advocate. An electrical engineer and graduate of Worcester Polytech, he made a solar car for his senior project, participating in the first collegiate solar car race, the 1990 Sun Race. He’s also been the lead advisor on the recent MIT solar house. Alternative energy is important, Stern says, but for beginning greenies, he recommends “SSO” – Shutting Stuff Off.

“Start with SSO,” he says, “and after that focus on solar and wind.”

CARE co-founder Andrew Stern
Stern (pictured right) believes that wind farms, such as proposed by Cape Wind, need to be built all along the East Coast. “We need to install as much wind and solar as we have now, just to keep up with demand.” There’s also an economic advantage to wind and solar that shouldn’t be ignored.. “These projects will create lots of green-collar jobs – long-term, good-paying tech jobs.”<!–nextpage–>

Using wind, especially given global warming, is a no-brainer, says Stern. A wind turbine displaces 1,200 tons of CO2, seven tons of sulfur dioxide and five tons of nitrogen oxide, he says. More wind power results in less smog, acid rain and greenhouse gas emissions. Stern ticks off the reasons that make wind power powerfully appealing:

  • Wind energy is abundant. Stern’s view that wind could provide 20 percent of U.S. electricity with turbines placed on only 1 percent of its land area is also the view of many official sources. This year, the Department of Energy, released projections that the U.S. could achieve 20 percent wind power by 2030. Many experts believe that’s an underestimation.
  • Wind energy is renewable, unlike oil. In the U.S. today, Stern notes, “We are using more oil than we can produce.”
  • Wind is domestic, so it would never be subjected to price shocks due to international conflict. Oil was $24 a barrel at start of Gulf War, he points out, and has risen, at times, to well over $100 a barrel during the war.

The East Coast is not the only place that’s looking to wind power. California, Texas, Minnesota and Iowa are among the other regions that are investing in wind.

In order to accomplish 20 percent wind power by 2030, an ambitious threefold boost in turbine installations is needed, according to Wind Powering America, an initiative of the Department of Energy’s. A recent WPA report states the installations will need to improve “from today’s 2,000 annual turbine installations to almost 7,000 per year by 2017.”

Finding new energy sources is no longer an option but a necessity, says Stern. It will cost money initially, he notes, but once it’s in place, the benefits will outweigh the costs.

“Industrialization was good, but now we need to start living more sustainable lifestyles,“ he says. “If the United States doesn’t get it and do it right, we can’t expect China, India and Africa to do it. The US has the expertise and the technology, we [now] need the leadership and execution.”

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