Smaller-Scale Wind Power Silently Spins Ahead

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Wind energy is not popular. Divisive utility-scale wind projects in Falmouth, Fairhaven and Portsmouth, R.I., as well as the protracted fights and acrimony caused by offshore wind farms Cape Wind and Deepwater Wind, have brought wind-energy construction to a crawl. Rhode Island hasn’t unveiled a new turbine in more than a year, while new wind projects dropped more than 90 percent in Massachusetts last year, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Wind policy and projects indicate that wind power is moving offshore, said James Manwell, director of the Wind Energy Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “I think it’s headed into the water. I think it’s going to be tough to do land-based wind power in Massachusetts," he said. "There’s just a lot of opposition that makes it difficult.”

Meanwhile, solar energy has sailed well passed its growth targets. In 2013, Massachusetts exceeded its goal of 250 megawatts of new solar projects four years early.

However, southern New England, and Massachusetts in particular, have some of the best wind resources in the region, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Large-scale turbines are considered one of the most productive sources of emissions-free energy. Massachusetts has 1,028 megawatts of land-based wind potential, or roughly enough power for about a million homes. Take into account above-average electricity prices and prominent research centers and universities, and one might expect to find wind turbines doting fields, rooftops and the coastline.

But wind turbines need space to operate, and in densely populated states such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island they often upset neighbors. Critics from groups such as Windwise Massachusetts have been unyielding in publicizing the drawbacks, such as noise, shadow flicker and the pronounced visual presence. The ongoing legal battle between the town of Falmouth and abutters to two 400-foot-high turbines built in 2010 and 2011 demonstrates how disputes can persist.

The end of a federal investment tax credit in 2012 caused uncertainty among wind developers. Although the tax credit returned in 2014 and generous public subsidies still exist, public opposition has defeated several proposals. In 2013, Rhode Island projects in Westerly, Jamestown and Tiverton were scrapped because of public pressure.

Wind-energy advocates say a small, vocal opposition has paralyzed further projects.

“It’s a well-funded, galvanized group of people who are obstructionists,” said Megan Amsler, executive director of Cape & Islands Self-Reliance Corporation, a North Falmouth-based advocacy group that offers training, outreach and advocacy for the full-range of renewable-energy technology.

Large wind turbines, she said, are one of the most efficient energy sources. Yet as large land-based wind development has stalled, the public, she warned, should be cautious of looking to small-scale turbines. “The small-scale stuff gets really, really complicated,” Amsler said.

Since the 1990s, Amsler has researched and promoted the most cost-effective and efficient renewable-energy systems. She and other experts have found that small roof-mounted turbines are simply too unpredictable to be relied on for energy. Small wind turbines carry a rating of 100 kilowatts or less. Many small home models are rated 5 kilowatts or less.

Yet, even as solar energy and offshore wind farms get federal and state financial support and publicity, attempts at developing unconventional wind turbines have inched ahead.

In 2010, the town of Mashpee installed two 30-foot vertical-axis turbines at Heritage Park. The 1.2-kilowatt Windspire turbines offset a fraction of electricity use from a small nearby building. But town officials say the turbines are silent, less visually obtrusive and don’t generate complaints. Amsler believes the turbines offer false hope to small-wind advocates.

“I’m sorry, it just doesn’t work,” she said.

Amsler and other wind experts say all wind turbines require a thorough, costly and time-consuming analysis of the wind available at the intended location. Trees and buildings cause turbulence that can greatly diminish the smooth airflow needed to generate electricity. To get that wind, a turbine must sit at least 100 feet off the ground, higher than most rooftops. Yet, many small turbines, Amsler said, are often installed without due diligence.

“Just because it spins it doesn’t mean it’s generating electricity,” she said.

Solar, by comparison, is less expensive, easier to install, requires less maintenance and produces more electricity, Amsler said.

But such obstacles haven't stopped believers in smaller-scale wind energy. A 50-kilowatt Sky Farm vertical axis turbine has been producing power at Martha’s Vineyard Airport since 2010. The designers of the turbine, Eastern Wind Power of Cambridge, conducted extensive testing and modifications are ready to take the prototype into production and market it globally.

“We’ve done the hard work,” said Linda M. Haar, the company's vice president. “Now it’s just a matter of getting it into multiple production."

The mid-scale turbine, built by Clear Carbon Components of Bristol, R.I., is intended for specific locations rather than a one-size-fits-all use. Urban rooftops, specifically windy roofs that have limited sunlight, are ideal sites. Even in tight spaces, a cluster of the 20-foot-diameter turbines can sit side by side.

For Haar, it’s not a choice between solar and wind. “Solar and wind are complimentary,” she said.” In locations like New England you’re not going to get sun all year or wind all year.”

Her company's turbines also are suitable for rural, even remote settings, where traditional horizontal axis turbines might falter. Later this year, a research facility in Antarctica will be using an Eastern Wind Power turbine, which is made of stainless steel and 20-foot carbon-fiber composite blades.

“It’s built like a horse,” Haar said. “It’s extremely sturdy. It can handle high wind. It’s a tough turbine.”

A 5-kilowatt solar array shares space with four 1-kilowatt turbines on the the roof of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) laboratory in Narragansett. R.I. These renewable-energy sources have delivered a small but steady stream of electricity since 2011. The turbines sit on a windy building that overlooks the entrance to Narragansett Bay. The small and silent turbines, designed by Urban Green Energy (UGE) of New York, were chosen so they couldn’t be heard in a research lab below.

"For us, wind is just one piece of the puzzle, and when combined with solar and storage, we can tailor a system that meets energy demands," said Ryan Gilchrist, Assistant Director of Business Development at UGE.

Mark Maynard, co-founder of Urban Power USA Inc. in Easthampton, shares the vision of a mid-sized, low-maintenance turbine that serves as a complement to rooftop solar and an alternative to bigger turbines that draw public opposition.

“Wind has put a lot a bad taste in peoples’ mouths,” Maynard, 60, said.

The lifelong inventor and researcher designed a squat, vertical axis turbine that can be stacked to meet wind flows. He has three working models of his Urban Turbine in Central Massachusetts delivering power to the grid. The big benefit, he said, is they generate power in low winds with nearly no noise — something, he said, large turbines can’t do. The 10-kilowatt turbine is already on order for a private site in Montague.

While a bigger turbine might generate more electricity, the town's Zoning Board of Appeals recently approved a permit for the vertical-axis 20-kilowatt tower system based on its silent operation, low profile and a lack of spinning blades that would threaten birds. The 73-foot-high turbine, which will barely exceed the height of surrounding trees, is expected to generate enough power for 30-40 homes.

Maynard’s turbines cost between $25,000 and $85,000. The cost can be offset through credits on electricity bills. They also need less space than a solar array or large-scale wind turbine, he said.

“We’re not as efficient (as traditional turbines), but we’re effective," Maynard said. “They occupy a niche.”

It’s a niche that, so far, has a few determined believers that wind power can be harnessed in smaller ways.

This story was funded through a grant from the Marion-based Island Foundation. It's the fourth article in a four-part series on grassroots renewable-energy efforts ongoing in southern New England.