By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
NEWPORT, R.I. — John McNulty wasn't about to give up on a wind turbine. The 72-year-old, lifelong city resident and retired builder with a tireless mechanical mind seems to have won his fight with City Hall, as a new 39-foot-high wind turbine is on its way.
After a multiyear struggle to create rules for residential wind turbines, the Planning Board last December approved turbines up to 50 feet high, but with many stipulations. Any turbine must be located in a non-historical neighborhood on a lot of 10,000 feet or more, thus precluding about 90 percent of a city with an abundance of wind and old homes on small lots.
The new regulations, however, didn’t exclude McNulty, who lives in the working-class Fifth Ward, an area that continues it tradition of housing workers and students from the boating industry, seasonal businesses, the Naval station and colleges, as well as staff for wealthy residents.
McNulty, whose home and yard is awash in quirky signs and construction materials, still had to resolve a lawsuit with the city over four small-scale rooftop turbines he erected without consent. The turbines and other rooftop poles prompted complaints from neighbors, and ultimately forced the Planning Board to write standards.
The board's decision allowed McNulty to apply for a permit for a new turbine, provided he removed his homemade rooftop ones. Once he complied, the permit was issued and the lawsuit subsequently disappeared when a Superior Court judge threw out the case Sept 26.
McNulty's victory won’t come without a cost. McNulty estimates he spent an estimated $50,000 in legal fees, while the turbine and its installation will cost some $80,000.
But the expense seems worth it to McNulty, who dug in after getting resistance from the city. In particular, he was spurred on by Mayor Henry Winthrop, who McNulty said, vowed to prevent a new turbine. “It didn’t stop me,” he said.
The new center-axis turbine should be less visually obtrusive. Instead of a fan-like propeller, bowed blades are affixed up and down a spinning center tube. The design reduces noise and need for support, allowing them to be smaller.
The turbine will run through a skylight of the house affixed to a foundation in a crawlspace beneath the first floor. It will stand 10 feet about the roofline and generate an electric capacity of just under the 100-kilowatts limit.
The turbine will join existing solar panels to power and heat the house. Only the clothes dryer will be powered directly by the grid. McNulty has wired the house to draw the electricity from banks of batteries that store the renewable energy, while excess power will feed back into the power grid.
“It’s like a car with free gasoline,” McNulty said. “I can drive and drive and drive.”
He won’t venture into the debate about larger commercial turbines, but he believes the public will embrace small-scale wind just as it has embraced microwave ovens. “I think this is positive not just for me but for everyone,” he said.
The experience has drawn attention across the country, with McNulty getting calls from journalists and others looking to erect turbines, including many local residents. “Now the safe is open,” he said.
McNulty predicts the next battle with officials will be over access to well water. In a city with a history of water-quality problems and climbing water bills, residents will want to tap into another natural resource by drilling wells on their property. New wells, however, are prohibited for residents like him who already have municipal water.
“That’s another adventure,” he said.