Three wind turbines push Gloucester to renewable energy forefront

Mayor Caroline Kirk signs one of the blades on the turbine being erected at Gloucester Engineeering at Blackburn Industrial Park.
Mayor Caroline Kirk signs one of the blades on the turbine being erected at Gloucester Engineeering at Blackburn Industrial Park.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

GLOUCESTER — For centuries, wind has played a central role in Gloucester’s economy, pushing fishing vessels across oceans, and helping to make the port the most storied fishing village in the country.

These days, the city and private developers are looking to the wind to save money and to cut down on burning fossil fuel. Gloucester has become the first community in the North region with three turbines, taking advantage of an average daily wind speed of nearly 16 miles per hour.

“It’s a statement about choosing our own destiny and becoming independent from oil,” said Mayor Carolyn Kirk. “We’re a progressive community that has always relied on the wind. This is a natural fit for Gloucester.”

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Like burnished, inanimate giants, the three turbines and blades each stretch over 400 feet into the air. They’re the latest to be hoisted into the sky by developers and municipalities that are looking for alternative energy. In Ipswich, a second turbine is being built and should be running by the end of the year, with the pair set to provide 7 percent of the town’s power. In Medford, a small turbine helps power a middle school and saves the city $25,000 annually. The Lynn Water and Sewer Commission is erecting a 254-foot-high turbine along the Lynnway, a $1.8 million investment that will save the city as much as $5 million over the next 20 years.

Two public-private turbines in Gloucester went into service last Monday when National Grid issued authorization to interconnect with its system, according to Richard E. Kleiman, a wind power consultant for Gloucester Engineering, the city’s partner in the project. Gloucester is now the only city in the state producing the equivalent of its municipal electric load/use with wind turbines, Kleiman said.

The deal allows the city to power all of its buildings — from City Hall to its high school — at a subsidized rate, saving almost $500,000 a year for the next quarter-century.

In Gloucester, the three turbines were built by businesses. One is owned by Applied Materials, the parent company of Varian Semiconductor. Varian’s 2.5-megawatt, 492-foot-high turbine is the tallest in Massachusetts, and is expected to provide about one-third of the company’s power since it began operating last month. About 30 percent of the turbine’s $8 millioncost will be subsidized by a federal program, and will allow the company to save about $1 million in power costs a year.

“We saw a potential for great savings for the company and Gloucester is a great wind resource,” said Varian spokesman Rick Johnson.

Five years ago, the city approved the Varian wind turbine plan, but the slowdown in the economy put the project on hold. During that time, Gloucester reviewed Varian’s wind studies and began to consider building its own turbines. The city took began negotiations with a private developer who proposed building two turbines and selling all of the power generated by the wind to the city.

Last year, the city signed a 25-year electrical purchase plan with Equity Industrial Partners. The plan called for Equity to build two 2-megawatt, $12 million turbines at Gloucester Engineering, near the Varian site in the Blackburn Industrial Park.

Across the region, not everyone has embraced the idea of building large turbines in communities. Most opponents complain about shadow flicker, infrasound, and vibrations. In Salem, a proposed turbine stalled after a neighborhood group opposed its construction near Salem Willows. In a 2012 state study prepared for the Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Public Health, the report concluded that there was insufficient evidence that noise from wind turbines directly “caused health problems or disease.”

Kirk and other city officials believe that locating the turbines in an industrial park – away from neighborhoods, and near Route 128 — helped mitigate opposition. To date, there’s been no opposition to the turbines. Paul McGeary, the city councilor who represents the neighborhood nearest to the turbines, said it’s because they stand about 1,000 feet away from the nearest homes on Harrison Avenue.

“What really helped us was location, location, location. It’s properly sited,” said McGeary, who helped organize public meetings about the turbines in the neighborhood over the last year.

To date, he has received only one complaint, from a resident who said the turbines were interfering with his satellite television reception.

Carl Stratton, who lives in the neighborhood, said he had been nervous about shadow flicker but is taking a wait-and-see attitude. In November at the Gloucester Engineering site, he was one of more than 2,000 people who signed the blades that now spin 400feet in the air. “I’m definitely in favor of alternative energies,” he said.

Sally Seamons, another neighbor, also signed a blade. “I’m only going to see the beauty of it. I love anything that moves,” she said.

In this cash-strapped city, where water rates are among the highest in the nation and proposed capital improvement projects top over $200 million, the idea of saving around $11 million over the next 25 years by buying discounted energy has been widely endorsed.

“It had to make financial sense for the city and clearly it does,” said Kirk, who plans to propose using the savings to help fund a new joint police and fire station that could cost between $10 and $15 million.

She also said the turbines represent the city’s desire to protect the environment. Gloucester has been designated as one of the state’s Green Communities, and is in the process of trying to fill up much of its long-vacant harborfront lots with new maritime businesses, that would include everyone from ocean researchers and scientists to “green” boatbuilders.

McGeary also believes the turbines will project an image of a city poised to welcome environmentally friendly new businesses.”

We are trying to become a leader in marine biology and marine biotechnology, and you need to have a certain image about being a cutting-edge place, being a place where we’re willing to experiment, being a place where new things are tried and implemented and not just talked about,” he said.

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