Monday, March 12, 2012

Wind turbine tour

The energy class and I took a tour of local wind power facilities on Thursday.

We began with the turbines built by local Amishman Ervin Hochstettler and his son Joas.

Ervin and Joas are largely self-taught engineers and manufacturers. Like all Amish, their formal schooling ended with the eighth grade. But they've mastered many if not most of the process functions of engineering and manufacture, including the most difficult work of designing assemblies.

Their primary line of turbine makes not electricity but compressed air. This is because Amish shops are not generally allowed to use electricity, at least not mains supply 110 and 220 volt electricity. Instead they use hydraulics and air, as well as battery-powered hand tools, which they generally charge with solar power.

Ervin and Joas have been organizing production for the last several years that I've been dropping by with students. They reported on this visit that they've finally begun to show a small profit from turbine sales.

Visiting a small manufacturing operation like the Hochstettlers is good for students in our Sustainable Energy Management degree who, although intended for the management side of the renewable energy business, need to know how design and fabrication works.

It's also good to see the theoretical side of renewable energy put into practice. Ideas learned in the classroom or in the laboratory, such as the efficient design of turbine blades for different purposes, begin to finally make sense when you see those blades being put to use.

We then visited the MOFGA 10KW Bergey turbine. This much older version of the standard Bergey workhorse has been in more or less constant use on two different sites since 1987. Lately the inverter has quit, and a second inverter that I managed to salvage from a different turbine site two years ago hasn't proven of any use. Both inverters are now in the electronics shop at the local community college to see if one good one can be made from the two bad ones. Failing that, MOFGA will have to consider a new inverter.

A quick drive-by of the Kinney Farm Jacobs 10KW was the next order of the day. This is an almost antique type which has been cranking away off and on at this site since 1982, although all the equipment has been changed out several times, so it's really only the tower that has lasted that long.

Following that we finished up our tour at the Beaver Ridge Wind Farm, where there are three GE 1.5 SLE turbines, much larger, and much more capable than any of these other types. The older GE 1.5s are noisy, and these are no exception, having prompted multiple complaints over the years from various neighbors. Through a process of winnowing and accommodation, most of the neighbors who disliked the turbines the most have moved, or have been bought out by the company, so these machines are no longer quite as controversial locally as they once were, although I'm sure there remain some neighbors who hate them still. There's a good case to be made that they never should have been put as close to houses as they were, particularly on the south side where most of the noise ends up.

But despite the complaints, the three turbines are productive and have together produced around 12,000,000 KWh/year since they were commissioned, enough to power about 600 houses each, or 2,400 houses total.

It's good for the students to see and hear the larger turbines. Up close, they are gargantuan, and do severely impact the neighborhood, essentially industrializing a large portion of the quiet and peaceful Town of Freedom. And they're noisy too, although on a winter's day like Thursday, the wind in the trees and brush was making more noise than the turbines at least according to our decibel meter at about 700 feet. In summer, with high wind shear conditions, the turbines will make noise when there's little wind, and thus little noise, on the ground. At that time of the year the turbines will seem very loud indeed to neighbors.

Our home-grown Maine anti-wind activists will say that these turbines are noisy and spoil the landscape, both of which are true.

But they'll also say that the turbines don't retire any fossil fuel combustion or climate emissions, which is not at all true, not even slightly true, and that the intermittent production of wind power can't be handled by the grid, and this isn't true either. If anti-wind activists stuck to the facts -- that turbines are noisy and unsightly -- and didn't distort the truth with these other arguments, I'd have more respect for their point of view.

But it's primarily a NIMBY sentiment. Having less wind power would mean we would need to use a more environmentally damaging form of power somewhere else.

There are several rational alternatives to these noisy, unsightly turbines: more drilling and fracking for gas in PA and NY, more mountaintop removal coal mining in WV, more nuclear power stations, more solar power stations, more solar panels on our own houses (and more expensive electricity as a result), or, and perhaps most difficult, to convince Americans to use less electricity overall.

I think that the reason there's so much opposition to wind power in Maine is because we've grown accustomed to having someone else, somewhere else, produce our power for us, and that someone else has also had to absorb the environmental impacts of producing that power.

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