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Plan strives to harness the wind; Panel studies turbine viability.

Byline: George Barnes

To say there is gold in the winds of northern Central Massachusetts may be an overstatement, but the Montachusett Regional Planning Commission wants to find out how much is blowing out there, and if it could at least translate into a greener future for the region.

The commission is using its global information system and adding in wind, geographic and land use data to create a picture of what wind resources are available if a company, organization, community or individual wishes to install a wind turbine, and where the best places would be for that type of power-generating technology. The commission is looking to help the region prepare for what Glenn Eaton, executive director of the planning commission, said is the next new thing being developed in the region.

"Windmills are on the horizon," said Mr. Eaton, apologizing for his slightly tongue-in-cheek comment.

Wind turbines are already up and running in several places in Central Massachusetts. Templeton Municipal Lighting Plant just received the blades and other parts for a turbine it is having built behind Narragansett Regional High School in Templeton. Mr. Eaton said he expects many more to be built in the coming years, and he wants to ensure communities and businesses have the best information available when they need to make a decision on where they should go.

"I'm trying to get ahead of the curve," he said.

Mr. Eaton said the region was caught unprepared by the massive expansion of the telecommunications industry several years ago. The expansion resulted in the almost unrestricted sprouting of communications towers on hilltops all along the Route 2 corridor and in nearby communities. He said he recalls attending a meeting in 2001 in Royalston to talk about how the town should deal with applications to build cell towers. He said he realized it was a meeting that should have been held a few years earlier. The town already had an application to build a tower, but did not have plans in place to ensure it was done in the best interests of the community.

"It was reactive planning," he said. "That always stuck with me."

Although people are growing used to the sight of cell towers in their communities, it was a shock when they were being built. The towers were the result of Americans embracing the cell phone and demanding more places where they could get a signal to make calls. Wind turbines also come with some concerns about how they affect the landscape.

The wind turbines are part of efforts to produce renewable energy, rather than energy from oil and coal. It is out of environmental concern, but also economic need, as the price of fuel oil continues to rise and fall on the world markets.

Like the expansion of cell towers, the use of wind turbines is rapidly expanding. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the country reached 1,000 megawatts of wind energy produced in 1985. It took 14 years for the number to double. Since 1999, the capacity of turbines installed around the country has grown to nearly 35,000 megawatts, as of Dec. 31. The wind energy installations in this country produce enough electricity on a typical day to power the equivalent of more than 9.7 million homes.

Jason Stanton, global information systems coordinator for Montachusett Regional Planning Commission, said the project got its start at the request of Mr. Eaton, to try to develop a better understanding of where wind energy could be a viable resource. It is expected to be developed over the next month or so.

Mr. Stanton said many areas cannot be used for a variety of reasons. Of those that can be used, he said, some work better than others. He said his job is to map the average wind speeds.

"I then tried to clip out areas that could be excluded," he said.

Information on zoning regulations and wetlands will be added to the maps to show where the turbines might be prohibited. The turbines need deep footings to ensure they have a solid base for the 100-foot-tall or higher monopoles they are built on.

"The point isn't to say this is where you should put a wind farm, but if you are interested in putting up a wind farm in your area, this is where you could consider," he said.

The technical considerations for putting up a wind turbine, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, include wind speed, which should annually average about 13 miles per hour at the hub height, which is the height from the ground to the center of the turbine rotor. The site should also be open and generally at a higher elevation than surrounding areas. The distance to transmission lines is also a factor, as are obstacles, such as large trees or buildings. Also to be considered in installing a wind turbine is the visual impact, the noise causes and the effects on birds and bats. Noise from wind turbines is minimal, but could be a problem in populated areas.

Mr. Stanton said the wind data he has seen so far shows the area from Mount Wachusett through Westminster and Ashburnham to be among the better-suited for wind speeds. The area also encompasses west Gardner, Ashby and parts of Fitchburg and Leominster. Within those areas, what land would be acceptable after other factors are considered is still to be determined. Other areas of northern Worcester County, depending on topography, may also lend themselves to successful development of wind power, he said.


CUTLINE: (PHOTO) Michel Houle, an electrical technician with windmill manufacturer AAER, does a final electrical test Thursday on the turbine behind Narragansett Regional High School. (CHART) Considerations for wind power installation

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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 18, 2010
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