If you’ve driven along 95 through Providence or down Allens Avenue or looked out from Conimicut Point in the last six months, then you’ve probably seen them: the giant wind turbines reaching toward the sky from Field’s Point. But the turbines have been stationary since they were erected, letting the wind blow right past them without even a quiver.
All of that’s about to change, though, said Jamie Samons, public affairs manager for the Narragansett Bay Commission (NBC). The turbines at Field’s Point are part of NBC’s wind energy project, and Samons said they are set to spin in October.
In an interview Monday, Samons said the final component of the wind turbines had just arrived: a switch gear that will allow NBC to complete the connection process that links the turbines to their waste water treatment facility.
“They’ll start spinning in the next couple of weeks,” she assured.
The turbines were installed in February, but the delay in getting their blades spinning has been the connection process. The turbines are anticipated to provide 40 percent of the energy to the Field’s Post wastewater treatment facility, and Samons said any additional power – which they do expect to generate – will be exported and sold to National Grid.
The process of using wind turbines as an alternative energy source began for NBC in 2005 as part of an Environmental Protection Agency-funded project. NBC also secured a $25,000 grant from the State of Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources to conduct studies on wind turbine feasibility at their Field’s Point location.
The next step was to set up meteorological towers on the premise. The towers were loaned to NBC by Roger Williams University, and over a 24-month period they collected data to analyze the cost-benefit ratio of the turbines. The towers also helped to determine where the winds were strongest, how many turbines would be needed and at what height the blades would get optimum exposure to currents. What NBC found was that the turbines would be best placed at the edges of their Field’s Point grounds, which are triangular in shape. It was decided that three turbines would be erected, one in each corner.
Samons said NBC was lucky that their location provides them with steady wind on most days.
“If you come down here any day of the week, you’ll realize it’s windy,” said Samons, who added with a laugh that she hasn’t had a good hair day in years.
In addition to determining the feasibility and location of the turbines, their initial studies also determined that 400 feet would be the optimum height for the turbines. But because the Field’s Point location is in the glide path for T.F. Green, NBC was told by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that 400 feet was simply too high.
“The most time-consuming part [of the process] was getting approval from the FAA,” said Samons. According to NBC’s website, they first approached the FAA in 2008 but weren’t granted approval to construct the turbines until 2010.
Eventually, the two organizations compromised on a total turbine height of 365 feet, which is measured from the base of the turbine to the tip of the blade. The blades themselves are about 132 feet long, and weigh about 9 tons.
Samons recalled the process of erecting the turbines, which required the huge blades to be lifted one by one onto the 150-foot tower by a crane. A worker, said Samons, stood atop the tower, and reached out to grab the blade and guide it into its proper position.
“It’s not a job I wanted,” said Samons.
Although they may appear small from a distance, Samons said the wind turbines are impressively large when you’re right next to them. The blades themselves, said Samons, looked “like whales” on the transport trucks.
In just a few weeks, the large, white, whale-like blades that have been at a standstill since February will finally begin to spin, and the turbines will pump out an estimated 1,500 kilowatts of power each. Samons said once the turbines start spinning, they will continue to do so as long as the wind speed is greater than six or seven miles per hour. Despite their huge size and weight, it doesn’t take much force to push the blades. Of course, the turbines are clean energy, and are projected to offset 3,000 tons per year of carbon dioxide emissions that would have been released from traditional fossil fuels.
The entire Field’s Point wind project has a price tag of roughly $12 million, a cost NBC expects to recoup in 12 to 13 years.
“We anticipate [the turbines] will save us $1 million a year,” said Samons.
Samons said it is unlikely the NBC will construct other turbines in the near future, though she said they’re looking into other alternative energy sources.
In addition to exploring solar power, Samons said they’re also looking to turn methane emissions from their sludge digestion process into energy – a process Samons said could provide 30 percent of the plant’s power.
The sludge, said Samons, is exactly what it sounds like: the nasty waste product that would normally be discarded, and whose methane emissions would simply be burned off.
“We have an endless supply of that stuff,” said Samons, who is hopeful they can do something useful with it.