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September 30, 2010 (All day)
Newburyport Current

 

If you look at the Newburyport skyline from across the river in Salisbury in addition to the familiar landmark church spires, one see this enormous windmill sticking out as it whirls around ever so slowly.

In Hampton, there is a much smaller version of the same thing that I must have driven by a hundred times in the past few years and wondered, “What is that doing there?”

I am referring to the single, little, white windmill way up on a pole on the left-hand side of busy New Hampshire Route 101, heading off the beach just over the bridge. I finally started to ask questions, but nobody knew the answers.

Why is that there?

Who owns it?

What does it do?

Hearing a lot about wind energy recently and having seen many windmills at work on trips to Europe, I called Hampton Town Hall, and nobody knew much about it. They referred me to the Unitil Energy Systems in Hampton. I called them and was told somebody would get back to me soon.

My imagination got the best of me, and I started to think, “Is this the start of something big?”  Would we finally be investigating alternatives to fossil fuels and get out from under the reign of the super rich oil barons of the Middle East?

It actually looks pretty tame as it whirls around quietly in the sea breeze, doesn’t it? A little kid’s pinwheel might have more power!

Does it supply energy to a nearby structure? If it generates enough energy, does Unitil have to pay the customer back, like I’ve learned on TV? Will there be more windmills popping up on the shoreline soon? Who put it there in the first place? And why didn’t I notice when it was constructed?

Stephanye Schuyler, public relations executive for Unitil returned my call and answered a number of questions about the windmill, like, more correctly it is called a “wind turbine.” The objective of Unitil putting it up on Route 101 was to measure “line loss” of a conventional electric system.

It was a challenge, because there are no wind maps available and sometimes the wind doesn’t blow at all. The wind turbine is not accurate, but neither is solar power, Schuyler told me, because that doesn’t work on cloudy days ! Like the wind turbine doesn’t work too well on relatively calm days.

Yet, the innovative Unitil is still experimenting and testing the three-blade wind turbine, but they do not know how much longer.  Whether more wind turbines will be erected along busy Route 101 or elsewhere is not known at the present time. Finding out is a challenge of which they are all aware.

The real challenge of efficient electric power is still in the experimental stage, as is tidal power for us by the Atlantic Ocean. Cape Cod recently approved a wind farm to be erected off to the east, despite the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy’s objection for years.

The current oil well drilling tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico should alert all of us that alternatives to oil and gas must be found. Wind energy is a step in the right direction, and it is nice to know that a company like Unitil feels the same way. Let’s hope this one wind turbine will lead to many more if the test results are worth it.

The benefits for the average homeowner are way off in the future, but to get there starts with this single step that the vanguard company Unitil is undertaking.

Recently, I met with Schuyler and Distribution Engineer Nathan Sherwood at Unitil headquarters, and here is what I learned: People have used wind energy for years on sailboats and gristmills. It can be converted into the high-value, highly flexible and useful form of energy we call electricity. The wind turbine works just like a hydroelectric generator.

The energy that is contained is used to spin the rotor of the turbine (like an ordinary electric fan) and that drives the shaft of a generator to produce electricity.

Unitil is beginning this new program to displace its distribution system energy requirements through installation of small-scale wind turbines like the one on Route 101 in Hampton. The strong coastal winds make it a potential candidate for economic wind energy deployment.

Unitil already has existing poles in the area, providing a unique opportunity for a low-cost wind installation. The energy generated can be interconnected directly into the distribution system and used to offset the company’s normal utility electricity usage.

The light-colored machine blends into the sky and weighs 170 pounds, with three blades six feet in length. It is noiseless and has no bad side effects like nuclear power. The speed of the blades will vary with wind speed! as the wind speed increases, rotation and power output will increase up to a peak output of 2.4 kilowatts. It will not work when wind speeds are under 6.7 mph or above 56 mph, but is rated to survive winds up to 140 mph.

Unitil is carefully assessing the operation of the unit and is seeking comment and input from the public.  As Stephanye and Nate told me, “It’s like being around when Edison was seeking to invent the electric light bulb!”

Richard Doyle is a Newburyport native and a retired NHS teacher. 

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