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CLEAN ENERGY

Power answers blowing in the wind

by Stephen Hesse

There is no doubt our dependence on fossil fuels will end. We will wean ourselves off oil and coal because they pose unacceptable environmental and security risks, or we will be forced to stop using them as reserves dwindle and climate change intensifies.

To most foreign observers, the United States appears blithely intent on the latter course. A closer look, however, reveals numerous clean-energy initiatives at the local level, and these will be thriving long after the Bush administration’s policies have been judged disastrous to the environment, the economy — and national security. I’m convinced because I recently visited our clean-energy future.

My trip began this month at the New England Sustainable Energy Association’s annual conference in Boston, a showcase of companies, organizations and professionals working on renewable energies and new building technologies. From MIT engineers to corporate salespeople, the conference was an inspiring window on a vibrant segment of American industry that the media have all but ignored.

One seminar explored public perceptions of wind power, and the first speaker, Dr. Letherios Pavlides, made it clear that what was formerly a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) technology is quickly becoming YIMBY: Yes, In My Back Yard!

Pavlides is an architect teaching at Roger Williams University School of Architecture in Rhode Island, and he is a wind-power evangelist. He simply cannot imagine why anyone would not want a wind turbine in their neighborhood, and he has spent years researching why some people don’t. His short answer is “unfamiliarity.” It seems, he has found, that the more people know about wind generators, the more they like them — even the new turbines that stand 30 to 70 meters tall. Especially when people learn that burning oil and coal spews out particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide and mercury (from coal) — as well as causing oil spills and the corrosive effects of acid rain on forests, lakes and architecture.

Targets for terrorists

Nuclear power offers an alternative, but it creates radioactive wastes that last for hundreds of years and nuclear power plants make perfect targets for terrorists.

In contrast, using a 2-megawatt wind turbine to generate electricity for one year can cost as little per kilowatt-hour (kwh) as coal, without producing the same 8,300 tons of carbon dioxide. And while terrorists may target oil tankers and nuclear power plants, turbines are a safe bet. Bombing one would be as anticlimactic as knocking over a tree.

At the conference I also heard about Hull, a town near Boston, Mass., that installed a 660 kwh wind turbine in 2001. It stands 50 meters tall, has a rotor diameter of 47 meters, and cost $700,000. Engineers told Hull it would take five years to recoup their costs, and that the turbine would last for at least two decades. Just over three years later, even opponents have become fans of the sleek white rotor that stands on the beach behind the local high school. It provides only about 3 percent of the town’s electricity, but it has already paid for itself, and there is talk of putting up another.

While proponents have always touted turbines as miraculous sources of clean energy, opponents claim they are ugly and noisy and kill birds. Having never seen a new generation turbine, I decided to visit Hull with my 77-year-old mother.

They say ocean air excites an appetite for food and adventure. Maybe it also stimulates hunger for innovation, because as the graceful rotor of the Hull turbine came into view against the blue March sky, both of us were immediately charmed. We parked 50 meters from the tower and turned off the engine. I assumed the turbine would be humming or whining, even though I had heard that the newest models are quieter than a human conversation, with a decibel level just above the sound of wind blowing through trees. It took us a few seconds to block out the sound of a passing boat and the seagulls, and then we heard it: a soft, rhythmic, swooshing sound from the blades turning slowly in the gentle breeze.

Later, a teacher from the high school told us that the turbine was turning at about half its top speed. She explained that it was never very loud, because if the wind picked up and the rotor reached 48 kph, it stopped automatically. I asked if she could hear it inside the school, about 100 meters from the tower. “Never,” she said.

As for the birds, they were soaring and wheeling near the tower, but staying clear of the rotor. A conference speaker from the Rhode Island School of Design, Charlie Cannon, had explained that first-generation wind turbines are indeed a threat to birds, because they are small and spin fast, making the blades difficult to see. Today’s turbines, however, are much larger and slower moving, he said. They generate power with their greater torque, rather than speed, so birds can see the rotors and stay clear. Cannon said that birds still die, but far fewer than before, and he listed the common causes of bird deaths in descending order of fatality death as: glass windows, collisions with electrical transmission lines, house cats, hunting, autos, farming activities . . . then wind turbines.

Safer for wildlife

The truth is, turbines are simply safer for wildlife, and humans, because unlike fossil fuels, they do not cause pollution, acid rain, oil spills, mercury pollution or ecosystem degradation from drilling, mining and related infrastructure.

Perhaps the only real issue is the way turbines look. They are big, stark and new on our horizons. But tastes change, and many of our most beloved landmarks were once seen as eyesores, including the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, Pavlides explained. Besides, he noted with a smile, “Turbines make the wind visible and show us clean energy at work.” And, like the Eiffel Tower, wind turbines attract the curious and tourists — and they create instant converts, like my mother and me.

The Hull turbine is sleek and graceful — like a dancer, my mother said — leisurely turning to face the wind, its rotor changing speed almost imperceptibly. The longer you watch, the more captivating it becomes, like waves curling along a beach or grasses rolling in the wind. A synergy of sculpture and nature at work. We were enchanted.