Saturday, June 25, 2011

The quiet ones

I was at the Association for Environmental Studies and Science Annual Meeting at the University of Vermont, and took a slight deviation from the schedule to meet with Wellie Cobden and Phil Pouech of NRG Systems Inc, just down the road from UVT in Hinesburg, VT.

Wellie and Phil and I together go back about five-six years. They've been great friends and helpers of our community wind assessment program and our Sustainable Energy degree.

Phil is a Unity alum ('81 or thereabouts), and was instrumental in the gift of our first anemometer systems way back in 2006.

They are both employees of NRG Systems on the technical side. Phil is the Director of Manufacturing, while Wellie is the Field Manager and tech rep for tower erection, and most recently has been the lead guy on the new LIDAR wind measurement systems. Both are the kind of quietly capable individuals I like best to work with.

If we had a few thousand more Phils and Wellies in this world, I wouldn't be so worried about climate change.

I took with me Aaron Witham, also a Unity alum and former Sustainability Coordinator, now a Gund Institute Fellow at UVT studying transportation and climate issues, and Anna DeMeo, who teaches physics and engineering applied to renewable energy at College of the Atlantic.

We had a very pleasant afternoon at the factory. We were able to view and assess their newer products, including their new LIDAR system as well as the AllEarth Renewables AllSun solar trackers.

This was the specific tracker I had in mind when I made my recommendation, recently renewed on Andy Revkin's blog, that we place visible, inspiring solar PV not on the White House roof, but on US-designed and US-made trackers placed around the Elipse and Mall.

I wasn't going to plug the AllEarth model directly in the NYT, since that might have reduced the believability of the recommendation, Mick advertising for his buddies' equipment, but I'm more than happy to make the specification here on my own blog.

It was fun to stand underneath the unit and watch it gear around hunting for maximum sunshine on a cloudy day. It doesn't take a lot of energy to move, and the panels will capture an awful lot more energy as a result.

We also got to see an Earth Turbine 2500 from afar. The last time I saw an EarthTurbine it was a prototype on the bench.

Since all of us were energy techies or engineers, this was a bit like a picnic or family outing for renewables geeks and definitely the best fun I've had in a long while. I didn't have my camera or cell phone with me so was unable to take pictures, but Phil has some I took with his smart phone, and will send them to me, so I will post them later.

The one picture I was able to take with my own phone is above: This is a Northern Power company Northwind 100 turbine located at Dynapower Inc, on the Hinesburg Road south of Burlington, VT.

This is the turbine that will soon be installed at Camden Hills Regional High School here in Maine. I was excited to see it because so far in Maine the large scale turbines that have been used have all been fairly noisy models. This is a problem because it's been the main incentive behind all the restrictive ordinances that have been passed by many Maine towns now, many of which use long setbacks as regulatory tools for noise management.

I've said fairly consistently for several years now that if you wish to regulate noise, regulate noise using a noise performance standard, not a setback. Setbacks are good for other turbine-related nuisances, but not noise. Setbacks, when used to regulate noise, prohibit useful and quiet makes and models of turbines, and give the wrong incentive to developers, actually encouraging them to use noisier models.

The quiet Northwind 100 would effectively be illegal in many Maine towns because it would be essentially impossible for a landowner or developer to place one on a site in say Jackson, Dixmont, or many other towns with restrictive ordinances, and still meet the one and two-mile setbacks that have been required, supposedly to protect neighbors against noise.

Yet if the setback can be met, why would a developer wish to pay a little extra for a quieter turbine? Direct drive turbines like the Northwind are available in many rated output categories, even up to 3 and 4 MW models like the egg-shaped Enercons.

Direct drive dramatically reduces noise output.

Enercons aren't made in the US, however, while Northwinds are.

For these reasons, I'm particularly eager to have a Northwind in Maine.

And so we stood underneath the thing yesterday, in a wind speed of 10-15 mph, with the blades spinning at about 15 rpm, and all we could here was a slight hiss at about 45 dBA.

I doubt you can hear this turbine at all after 200 meters.

There was also no AM noise that I could detect, which surprised me because the blades are nothing particularly special.

The cars on the nearby Hinesburg Road were definitely much noisier than the turbine.

One fine day we'll have to repeal or replace a lot of these ordinances. The price of heating oil and gas will go up, while electric cars will come down, and Mainers will want to be able to keep electrical power prices down in order to use electricity to heat homes and charge cars. I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't even a kind of backlash, in which Mainers reduce regulation more than I would like or recommend, as the political pendulum swings the other way.

When this happens there will be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth from Maine's anti-wind activists.

But that's what happens when you take such an extreme position.

You're asking for the other extreme to respond in kind, and if they ever get the chance, they will, showing no mercy.

Neither extreme seems very good to me.

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