Thursday, June 18, 2009

National security operations

Yesterday was a very busy day, and the culmination of several weeks of careful preparation, as students/college employees Dale Pitre and Cody Floyd and I trucked out to Maine's Charleston Correctional Center to erect an anemometer tower.

(Actually, Cody Floyd is currently a Colby College employee, an intern in the nascent Mid-Maine Sustainability Coalition. But he's a Unity College student, in our famous Sustainability Design and Technology program.)

The MCC is a combination of two facilities, a fairly high security juvenile facility, and a medium security adult lock-up, very separate from one another for obvious reasons. But it's on the site of a former USAF station.

Our mission was to take an abandoned radar building and give it a temporary new lease of life as ad-hoc anemometer tower.

I find it ironic but helpful to realize that as a former cold war military airplane technician, I am now recycling my skills in this new national security-related field of renewable energy, while old bases like this one can also serve new purposes.

Context is always helpful.

The old building looked to me like part of the DEW line from the fifties/height of cold war era. There's what must have been an almost identical, but still operational, USAF facility with which I'm quite familiar, at RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire, back in the territory of my old RAF Leeming Mountain Rescue Team.

Check out the Fylindales wikipedia page for a view of the kind of DEW line radomes (scroll down to see the shot) which must have sat on this building at one time.

This Maine site was no doubt superb for radar, and is likely to prove superb for anemometry, and our data will aid considerably in public knowledge of Maine winds. The view from the top of the building yesterday was easily fifty miles in all directions. You could clearly see the Bigelow Mountains to the southwest and Kahtahdin to the northeast.

The NREL 50 meter AGL high resolution Maine wind mapping data shows this to be a Class 2 wind site, with a 50 meter mean wind speed (MWS) of 5.6 to 6.4 meters per second, which I find fairly unlikely, to say the least.

If not absolutely ridiculous.

But everyone in the wind business knows that the NREL data is only recommended for preliminary wind power planning. The NREL average annual wind speeds are extrapolated from local weather station data based on standard wind industry equations. They're only as good as the original weather station input, much of which is from municipal airfields. The airfields and other weather stations used are much lower in altitude than the wind sites we need to explore here in Maine.

Garbage in, garbage out.

Eventually the very few anemometrists that work in the public domain here in Maine will have enough data to piece together a more accurate wind map for the state. It will take many years, because as far as I've been able to find out there are only three of us doing this work in the public interest. In the meantime, data from key sites like this one will be crucial to dozens of local community-scale, and hundreds of household scale, wind projects.

If we can find out what the winds are at 277 meters ASL and 26 meters AGL on this site, we can better estimate what they are on similar hilltops within 30-40 miles.

My guess is that this is a lower-bound Class 4 wind power site, with an 50 meter MWS of 7 to 7.5 meters per second.

But we're going to find out for sure.

It doesn't help that the five or six major private companies prospecting for wind power sites in Maine keep their data a commercial secret. They do this because wind power anemometry is expensive, and because they compete with one another, but the best public interest would be for any wind data data to be available to anyone if they wanted to use it.

Especially the government and people of the great State of Maine. Whose wind is it anyway?

Our task was made difficult by the abandoned nature of the host building. We slushed all our tools and equipment through an inch or two of nasty wet pigeon poop, up about ten flights of debris-strewn iron staircase, with the piece de resistance a ten foot steel ladder. There was of course no power except what batteries and generator we could bring to the site. And we had to rig an improvised hoist to get the heaviest pieces up to the top of the roof, using the big truck for motive power.

"Survivor" challenge games, only with proper tools and safety glasses.

Once up there, we had to assemble the tower, which we had custom-made for the site over the last few weeks, improvise a means of fixing it firmly to the building, ensure electrical conductivity for lightning strike, and program the computer.

Nothing went right, and we had to use a lot of Plan B's and C's. If intrepid Dale had not figured out how to fish the main bolts through the gantry decking with the ground wire, and if another of us hadn't had the idea to re-purpose some socket heads as spacers for too-long shouldered bolts, we'd still be up there now.

But all's well that ends well. A great day's work by a great crew, and a massive team effort in the background.

Lots of people have a little piece of this project:

Thanks are due to Cody Floyd and Dale Pitre, renaissance men and improvisers of note, and to their respective bosses for letting them go off for the day, to Roger Duval, Tom and Rick and the UC Maintenance and Custodial crews for suffering my invasion of their workspaces and tool racks, to Carol Palmer of UC Academic Affairs, for processing grant money and invoices, to VPAA Amy Knisley for tolerating my misuse of Carol's time, to Ervin and Joas Hochstettler, Unity Amish wind engineers par excellence, for fabricating the main part of the tower which I should think will last for a few decades if not centuries, to Efficiency Maine and KD Roux for the initial site visit and work-up, to the Google Earth Pro educational program and the Quantum GIS team for free wind mapping software, to NREL's Tony Jimenez for the initial data and assistance with data processing protocols and validation, to NRG Systems for free anemetry equipment, and last but not least to David Lovejoy and George of the MCC for letting us use their great site.

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