by Chris Menge
The Environmental Business Council’s wind energy committee held a meeting and site visit in Portsmouth, RI on September 22nd to hear about and see Portsmouth’s new 1.5 MW utility-scale wind turbine. HMMH’s Director of Clean Energy, Steve Barrett, organized the meeting as chair of the EBC’s wind energy committee. The presentation and site visit, attended by 12 to 15 interested parties, was hosted by Gary Gump, who led the effort to get the turbine permitted and built, as chairman of Portsmouth’s Sustainable Energy Subcommittee.
Gary gave an enthusiastic and very informative presentation, which included many details of the economic, legal, logistic, permitting, and construction aspects of the new wind turbine. The goal of the project was to produce approximately three-fourths of the power required by the town of over 17,000 residents to run its municipal buildings, including the schools.
The Portsmouth Sustainable Energy Subcommittee started working on the potential use of wind power in 2004. First, they needed to ensure that a wind turbine would be an economic asset to the town, so they performed an extensive feasibility study that looked at all aspects of the project.
One challenging and critical aspect to making the project economically viable was that Rhode Island law had to be changed to allow for increased municipal net metering. This change permitted the utility to give credit for power generated by the turbine at up to ten town electric meters, rather the five previously allowed.
A large enough town-owned site was also needed, with nearby power lines. Fortunately, Portsmouth High School had sufficient land, not too far from their tennis courts and athletic fields.
Once the project was deemed feasible, the committee then asked the citizens to vote to approve the project, which they did with a clear majority. In April 2008, the town signed a contract with AAER of Canada to build the turbine, which was turned over to the town in March 2009. The turbine has been in operation since then.
The site is very near Route 24, so the large turbine, which is 336 ft high at its highest, is very easily seen by passing motorists. Our group was able to walk right up to the base of the turbine while it was running, and to go inside the base (Gary had the key) to see the power transfer units and some control systems.
The unit is self-contained and controlled, but it has two monitoring stations, one at the town hall, and one at the fire department. The fire department controller can also start and stop the turbine, in case of emergencies. As we saw during Gary’s demonstration at the town hall, these monitoring stations provide a great deal of data on the operation of the turbine, including wind speed and direction, momentary and historical power output, and direction it is pointing, to name a few.
The turbine was turning and generating power during our entire visit. I was impressed at how quiet this utility-scale turbine seemed, since I’ve done noise studies for wind farms and read much about how some people are affected by the noise. I did hear the “swish-swish” sound when I was close, but I couldn’t hear it if I was more than about 100 ft away from the turbine. One advantage of this location was the presence of traffic noise from Route 24, a four-lane divided highway. Traffic noise has a similar sound character to the turbine noise, so it masks the turbine sound quite effectively.
The Town of Portsmouth Sustainable Energy Subcommittee maintains a Website detailing the project and providing many facts and photographs. The finacial bottom line that Gary gave us is that the turbine is expected to generate between $450,000 and $500,000 in income annually. The expenses and debt service will be about $250,000 annually, so the net revenue to the town is expected to be approximately $200,000 per year. As hoped, this represents about three-fourths of the town’s energy costs.
Congratulations to Gary and the Subcommittee for a very successful sustainable energy project! And thanks for a terrific presenation and site visit!