October 14, 2013

'Distributed Wind' Energy Projects Take Off In Mass.

PHOTO/COURTESY
Wind turbines at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner fill all of the campus's electricity needs.

Distributed Wind vs. Utility-Scale Wind

Wind power is produced through utility-scale or distributed projects.

In distributed wind systems, turbines are installed at or near the point of their end-use. Meanwhile, utility-scale systems consist of dozens or hundreds of turbines on a centralized wind-farm. The power generated through utility-scale projects is brought to customers through transmission lines.

Distributed systems are connected to the customer side of the meter to support onsite energy usage or offset nearby energy usage.

Though not defined by size, distributed wind systems are typically smaller than 20 megawatts and can be as small as a five kilowatt turbine at a home. Utility-scale wind farms are usually larger than 20 megawatts.

No wind turbine goes up in Massachusetts without a fight. That's a key reason the Bay State ranks just 35th in wind power capacity, several industry experts argued.

A cadre of wind-power opponents will travel from the tip of Cape Cod to the peaks of the Berkshires whenever a turbine proposal is up for debate, said Sue Reid, director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. And, added Kevin Schulte, vice president of the national Distributed Wind Energy Association, they'll bring up claims about harmful, low-frequency sound and distracting shadows caused by the sun flickering behind the turbine.

The meetings also provide a chance for persistent foes to link up with townspeople concerned about turbine noise or unsavory views, Reid said. The backlash is frequently enough to give municipal boards second thoughts about handing out building permits.



"However you cut it, it's hard to put up a large group of turbines in Massachusetts," said Jim Manwell, director of the Wind Energy Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "You can essentially stop it on a town-by-town basis." 


Approvals will often come with stringent conditions on noise emissions and setback distances from neighboring properties, said Lisa Linowes, executive director of the New Hampshire-based Wind Action Group, which opposes industrial wind projects. Those conditions are often enough to doom a project, Linowes said.

The well-coordinated opposition has had a chilling effect on new projects, Manwell and Reid said.

"The wind developers approach Massachusetts with some level of trepidation, understandably because of our history," Reid said.

'Historic Explosion'

But the commonwealth's bleak wind landscape contains one clear bright spot: distributed wind, or wind generated near the point of its use. Only Iowa added more distributed wind in 2012 than the Bay State.

"We've seen a historic explosion of growth in our wind energy sector," said Steven Clarke, the commonwealth's assistant secretary for energy.

The growth comes in forms both small — such as distributed generation — and large, such as the contracts filed Sept. 20 by the state's biggest utilities to buy 565 megawatts of electricity from six wind farms in Maine and New Hampshire. The largest renewable energy purchase proposal in Massachusetts history would provide enough electricity to power some 170,000 homes and eventually save utility customers between 75 cents and $1 a month.

That's all good news to people like Reid, who tout wind power as a way to reduce the greenhouse gases, particulates and air pollution that accompany conventional, fossil fuel-based energy sources. Wind resources are also inexhaustible, Reid said, and therefore not subject to the price volatility of fossil fuels.

More than 60 megawatts of distributed wind have been installed in Massachusetts over the last 10 years, placing the commonwealth fifth among the 50 states, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Some 27 of those megawatts were installed in 2012.

The top four states for distributed wind – Texas, Minnesota, Iowa and California – each has a total wind capacity of at least 2,950 megawatts. The total capacity combines distributed and centralized utility-scale projects.

The Bay State's total wind capacity is just 103 megawatts. The commonwealth has only two large wind farms, Clarke said, both located high in the Berkshires.

Demographics And Geography

Why have distributed and utility-scale projects encountered such different fates in Massachusetts?

First, the population density – third highest in the country – has made it extremely difficult to situate large turbine projects away from other property owners, Clarke said. Turbines proposed within a half-mile of another home are almost certain to encounter resistance, Manwell said.

Also, the Bay State's topography is unfavorable to large-scale wind generation, Clarke said. Expansive, flat spaces in the Midwest provide a good home to wind farms, he said, but such areas in Massachusetts are almost always littered with buildings.

The most favorable location for wind turbines in interior Massachusetts are ridgetops exposed to winds from the west or northwest, Clarke said. For instance, the Central Massachusetts foothills, which stretch from Paxton north to the New Hampshire line, usually enjoy sustained wind speeds of more than 12 miles per hour, he said, which is necessary to make turbine installation economical.

But these foothills usually have space for only a small number of turbines, Clarke said.

Distributed wind powers everything in Massachusetts from schools to breweries to the Jiminy Peak ski resort in Hancock in the Berkshires, Schulte said.

In Central Massachusetts, on-site turbines provide all of the electricity needed at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, and they power nearly a third of homes and storefronts in Princeton. Turbine installations have also been studied at the College of the Holy Cross and in Auburn.

A 900-kilowatt wind turbine on the hill behind the Home Depot in Auburn would reduce the municipality's utility bill by more than $200,000 annually, said Robert Platukis, chair of the town's Wind Turbine Committee. Utilities would be required to purchase all of the electricity generated at the site as part of the commonwealth's net metering program.

"Whatever you generate turns into cash," Platukis said. "We're creating wealth from nothing."

Auburn has been studying the proposal for more than a decade, Platukis said, since installing a 900-kilowatt turbine costs more than $2 million. Grants, however, would cover $350,000 of that.

New Program May Help
 4 Central Mass. Towns

A new financing model, though, allows homeowners and farmers in four Worcester County towns to avoid the up to $350,000 of upfront costs associated with installing a smaller wind turbine. United Wind introduced a program in 40 Massachusetts towns – including Ashburnham, Paxton, Princeton and Westminster – last month that allows residents to lease turbines from a third party.

"Having that (leases) available for wind will be a game-changer," predicts Mike Bergey, president of the Distributed Wind Energy Association.

Homeowners would typically spend $100 per month on lease payments for a turbine with a 22-foot blade diameter, said United Wind president Tal Mamo, while lease payments for farm-sized turbines offering an 80-to-100 foot tip-to-blade diameter would run between $700 and $1,000 per month. Residents or business owners would lock in a price and production guarantee for 20 years, he said.

United hopes to install 200 turbines in Massachusetts, New York and Maryland by fall 2014, Mamo said.

Massachusetts has established a goal to increase its onshore wind capacity to 500 megawatts by 2020, Clarke said. Incentives will be part of reaching that goal, but Clarke said the application process must be streamlined to get more proposals across the finish line.

To that end, Clarke said the governor's office has pushed for the Clean Energy Siting Reform Act, which would provide administrative and technical assistance to municipalities reviewing renewable energy proposals. Local boards would still make the final call on projects, he said, but scientific expertise from the state would ideally provide them with the confidence needed to give more proposals the green light.

"It's easier for a fossil fuel plant to get sited in Massachusetts than (a facility) for renewable energy like wind," he said.

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