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Windmills on Top Of New England's Horizon

NEW England has no oil, no coal, no gas. To modify a well-known phrase, necessity was the mother of environmentalism.

In the early 1900s falling water turned enough turbines to meet the electricity needs of the region. But as the economy grew and the rivers didn't, New England followed the rest of America in the use of fossil fuels. Indeed, oil- and coal-fired generation was so cheap and so easy that many of the old hydro-electric sites were abandoned.

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Even then, though, some New Englanders suspected that it was a mistake to become dependent on a resource that came from far away. In Vermont, in 1945, power engineers were willing to defy the trends and build a huge windmill generator on top of a West Rutland hill called Grandpa's Knob. At that time the idea ran ahead of the technology. In 1945, a fierce wind turned the Grandpa's Knob experiment into debris.

It was, for the time, the end of wind power in New England, but no one paid very much attention. Those who otherwise would have been worried about energy and the environment were more concerned with winning the Second World War.

But as America approaches the 21st century, wind power is ready to make a comeback in New England, and Vermont is leading the way. A relatively small, investor-owned utility, Green Mountain Power (GMP), which serves the north-central one-third of the state, is bringing wind power back as a source of commercial generation.

It's still too early to phase out nuclear and coal plants or to rip up gas pipelines. While wind can supply an abundance of power at times, the need for other resources to generate electricity when the wind fails will always be there.

Ironically, one of the most daunting obstacles facing large-scale development of wind generation comes from environmentalists. This obstacle takes two forms: Some dislike the idea of seeing windmills on top of New England's ridge lines; others dislike locating the windmills out of sight because that would mean placing them on wilderness areas.

In other words, while wind is truly renewable, and to a considerable degree environmentally benign, it is not entirely free of its own environmental impacts. To be effective, wind generators must be located on higher elevations because, as Willy Sutton might say, that's where the wind is, at least here in Vermont, and for the rest of New England.

In windy parts of the country where new power sources are needed, wind power is expected to be cost competitive as early as 1995. The use of lighter, high-tech materials and improved production techniques is lowering the cost to manufacture wind turbines, and improved designs enable the machines to extract more power from the air stream. Meanwhile, the costs of competing fossil fuel-fired generation are increasing, not so much because of the marketplace for such fuels, but because of recent actions by fe deral and state governments, aimed at justly accounting for the environmental costs associated with burning fossil fuels. The higher the cost of oil becomes, the better windmills look.

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In Vermont, GMP's plans are still relatively new within the electric utility industry. Early research, back in the mid-1970s, sought promising sites, measuring the winds for average speed. Researchers found not only sites with high average wind speeds, but a seasonal pattern that closely matched the company's increased need for power during the cold winter months.

Continued research through the `80s showed that wind-energy potential of the region is quite large, but developing even a small part of it presented unique challenges. Vermont is not the California desert. Winters are hard. Frequent icing and temperatures plunging below zero are common. And paradoxically, while wind energy is a clean energy source, developing it here requires erecting large machines on mountain ridges that are part of the landscape enjoyed by residents and tourists alike. Development in California is in sparsely populated areas distant from tourist areas.

In a test in 1989, GMP purchased and installed two turbines of the type used in California at the summit of Little Equinox Mountain, a 3,300-foot mountain in southwestern Vermont. Weather conditions at this elevation are as severe as any GMP will likely encounter. In addition, the Equinox turbines are in plain view of the center of the prosperous, tourist-oriented town of Manchester.

After three years, the company can call the project a success. The local community has accepted the presence of the turbines without notable complaint. GMP points to several factors for this: First, residents know about the environmental trade-offs associated with electric generation; second, the turbines so far are working very well, which demonstrates this technology's productivity and usefulness; and third, GMP has kept the public advised of all events at the facility (good and bad) through a quarterl y newsletter.

Operating experience gained with the Equinox turbines over the past three years has provided a wealth of information on winter ice accumulation on the rotor blades and the turbines' susceptibility to summer thunderstorms. With this knowledge, GMP can now predict better how much generation is likely to be lost due to these weather conditions. This knowledge more clearly delineates the level of risk in commercial installations.

Environmental and regulatory review processes in Vermont are thorough and time consuming. Even so, by 1995 the company hopes to be approved to operate two 100 kilowatt turbines capable of reliably producing 10 percent of the power needs of its region. Future plans call for the installation of up to 75 wind turbines supplying the needs of 7,000 single-family homes.

This company has set itself on course to pioneer the practical use of this clean, renewable local source on a scale never envisioned on the East Coast.