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The birth of a wind turbine

Eight years after its conception, Scituate generator powers up this month to begin supplying the town with electricity

By Jessica Bartlett
Globe Correspondent / March 4, 2012
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A s the crowning piece on the $6 million Scituate wind turbine was lifted 270 feet into the air and attached to the tower on Feb. 19, the overwhelming feeling was relief.

The placement of the final piece was the culmination of a project that required four years of study beginning in 2004; Town Meeting approval in 2009; months of seeking financial support that was finalized just last August; and numerous transportation hurdles that delayed the completion almost two weeks.

“This is a victory day,’’ said Pete Toppan, a Scituate resident and member of the town’s Renewable Energy Resource Committee, which was the first to look at the idea of installing the turbine.

Toppan stood overlooking the site on the final day of construction and reminisced about the process, saying he had no idea it would take eight years before a turbine was up and running, but that the wait was worth it.

“There are two ways to go at things: You can pay money and get things done, or you can take advantage of grants and other opportunities,’’ he said. “This cost the town nothing. For all the studies and all the work and bids, the unit itself isn’t costing the town a dime. It’s all paid for by other people’s money.’’

The turbine will be owned and operated by Scituate Wind LLC, a company created with Solaya Energy LLC and principals of Palmer Capital Corp. in 2009. Their funding, along with a $3 million bond from MassDevelopment, enabled the project to be built on land that the town is leasing to Scituate Wind for a 15-year term. The town has the option of renewing the lease with the company for two consecutive five-year terms.

In exchange for leasing the land for $1, the town will obtain electricity for one-half its municipal needs at a discounted rate, saving an estimated $4.5 million over the next 15 years.

While the project may have taken considerable time and effort, officials said they look back fondly on the overall experience.

“It’s been a very positive process with lots of public exposure’’ and lots of local excitement, said Al Bangert, director of the Department of Public Works. “It was exemplified by the number of people who showed up [during the work], and the comments people have made since then have been one of excitement.’’

After the first blade had traveled from China and finally graced Scituate’s shores, for example, hundreds of people came out on Jan. 21 to sign it.

With over 1,250 signatures, the blade was eventually trucked to the turbine site on the Driftway, where in a matter of days the towering turbine was pieced together.

Residents and passersby watched from nearby mulch piles as the tower sections, nacelle (which sits at the top of the tower and contains the gearbox, generator, and controls), and finally, hub and blades were lifted into place with the help of two cranes.

“It’s just incredible, and they seem to move them so effortlessly,’’ said 68-year-old Maureen Dinsmore, a Scituate resident for 12 years.

“It’s almost like a ballet . . . when you watch them do it, the way they lift it, move it, and position it, and we’re not talking Tinkertoys here.’’

Pete Hubbell, from Marshfield, said he had heard about the turbine just days before it was brought to town, and came down to watch the pieces moved from truck, onto cranes, and eventually into their permanent positions.

Though the assembly was a success, several problems arose during the delivery of the massive parts.

According to Sumul Shah, chief executive officer for Solaya Energy, routes initially planned with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation to truck the parts from the port of Providence to Scituate were quashed days before delivery was scheduled, with officials concerned that the weight of some pieces would be too much for one bridge.

It sent engineers into a frenzy to find and analyze alternative routes.

“It was fine, but there were a whole new set of bridges that we needed to verify,’’ Shah said.

On site, the problems mounted. The small construction site required pieces to be brought in and then immediately put up. Extra pieces had to be stored off-site to allow for maximum maneuvering space.

“There is no room on the site really at all,’’ said George Whalen, project supervisor with JK Scanlan Co., which installed the turbine.

The weather generally proved favorable, with hardly any snow during the winter months. High winds delayed the construction just one day near the end of the process.

According to Whalen, such delays are not unusual and the turbine assembly as a whole went smoothly.

Although the job feels done, Shah acknowledged there is still much to do.

“The first series of tests is to test it electrically to make sure it’s interfacing with the grid appropriately and all safety precautions are working correctly,’’ Shah said.

“After it’s working, we will go through a two-week process where we’ll be testing the control mechanism and the software, but that won’t be visible to anyone looking at it - it will look like it’s running fully. But in the process of running, if a sensor isn’t calibrated correctly or there are any other issues, those will be addressed and adjusted . . . After that, the turbine is fully complete and producing electricity permanently,’’ he said.

Shah expects the turbine to be operational by the middle of this month. Eventually, people may be able to monitor the electricity production through a website, and perhaps even view the turbine stats from their cellphones.

“We’re working on developing a website where people can look at production and real- time data. I had a conversation earlier today, we may even make an iPhone app available to people who want to look at it on their phones,’’ Shah said.

“But those are all things planned down the line,’’ he said. “The first focus right now is getting the turbine running, which we will do in the next couple of weeks, and we will work on public interfaces after that.’’

Yet as much as the town is rejoicing over the assembly of the turbine - a beacon of perseverance along Scituate’s shores - for some, the best moment is yet to come.

“For me, the best is the day they turn this on, the day they do their final testing and commission,’’ Whalen said. “Once you hear that, see the blades pitch and start to turn, hear the breakers kick in and the power start up, that’s the moment I like the best.’’

Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.may.bartlett@gmail.com.

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