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New England Interview: Brother Joseph of Portsmouth Abbey

New England Interview: Brother Joseph of Portsmouth Abbey

Date: 1/31/2006

Location: RI

The Portsmouth Abbey, a Benedictine monastery and prep school located in Portsmouth, RI, is about to install a commercial-scale Vestas V47 wind turbine on its property, with the assistance of a grant from the Rhode Island Renewable Energy Fund. This will be the first large-scale turbine located behind the customer meter in the region. We spoke to Brother Joseph Byron of Portsmouth Abbey, the champion of the project, about his experience.

Q. What was the Abbey's motivation for installing a commercial-scale wind turbine?

A. Our motivation was twofold, not only to save money but also as an example to students. Our immediate response was to our oil bills over the past year, knowing that electricity cost increases wouldn't be far behind. We also felt that somebody should do it, and why not us? The wind turbine fit nicely in terms of running a school and wanting to advocate and teach a responsible environmental issue. And we hoped that by taking the initiative, we could set an example for the town and the state. Once it's installed, people can see a real wind turbine in operation and hopefully realize that it is not a terrible blight.

Q. Could you describe the setting?

A. The Abbey's monastery and school are located on a beautiful 200-acre property. Everyone's biggest concern was, "What will this look like?" Everyone thought that wind as an alternative and renewable energy source was a good idea. It made sense economically. The questions were: How big? What does it look like? Where will we put it? It is a very big thing and will undoubtedly dominate the landscape. It will be set back about 1000 feet from the closest neighbors on Cory's Lane, almost directly behind the Monastery and the Church. Right from the very beginning we talked with our neighbors and others in the town to get their input. The response was overwhelmingly positive. We're putting it on a beautiful property, and we have an obvious sensitivity to aesthetics. Our hope is that if we are willing to put something this big on that property, it may quell the NIMBY arguments against wind power. We have a hockey rink on the campus, with a lot of people going in and out, so the turbine will be a real showcase. It will also be like a giant weather station, with interesting educational applications... we can tap into the data feed from the turbine 24 hours a day, and we can make that available to other schools as well.

Q. How did you put it all together?

A. Since we were real neophytes, we contacted the State Energy Office, which put us in touch with Henry duPont (Lorax Energy Systems) of Block Island. He was a tremendous resource. He researched site information (the wind resource, demand usage of the school) and then selected a turbine that would feed the school's load behind the meter, into the school's internal electric grid. We needed about a 600-kW machine, given wind speed and electric demands. Also, we wanted to minimize the turbine size and dominance of the landscape. We were lucky to get one of the last Vestas V47s available. The State Energy Office helped with financial modeling, understanding the market, payback period, etc. The town zoning ordinance allows for wind turbines, but we needed a special use permit and a zoning variance. Nobody has ever done something like this in Portsmouth, so it was new for everybody. I think that it went through unanimously because we did our homework and tried to quell concerns up front. Everyone thought we should try this. It was nice to have it all work out.

Q. How has your experience so far matched your expectations?

A. Good, so far. It is a daunting project and a real learning experience. I've never been involved in anything so big. We've already laid the conduit and put in the primary disconnect and are now installing a unique foundation design. Hopefully, that will be done by Thanksgiving. The turbine has been ordered and the parts made, but they are coming in various parts and pieces: the generator from a factory in Italy, and the blades from Denmark, should ship together to Boston and truck from there to here. The tower is coming from Fargo by truck. We wanted to do this before school let out, so we are waiting for the weather to be favorable. We'll put it all together in March, and we hope to get it up and running during a 1-week period.

Q. Has the community been supportive?

A. Not everybody is over the top on this, but most are strongly in favor. Somebody has to take the lead. The town has been terrific. We talked informally with the town folk about what they thought. The town is very concerned about overdevelopment and keeping the rural character of the place, and it has used a draconian height limit in the zoning code to achieve that. They are rightly very reticent to vary this. This was expected to be the real stumbling block. Everyone knew what we were doing; we spoke to everyone. We hope that once it goes up, it will help the town and the state. Photosimulation was critical in getting community support. We could demonstrate dynamically what people would see. It was a big help.

Q. How important were recent changes to Rhode Island's backup-rate policy to making this project feasible?

A. This exemption from the backup rate was a huge help. Anything like that helps. The grant from the state, obviously, helped. Whatever can be done to make it more attractive for people to attempt renewable energy. This is a big investment.

Q. If a grant from the state's Renewable Energy Fund had not been available, what would have been needed to move forward with the installation?

A. The Fund was extremely generous to us as pioneers in this effort, and we are very grateful. We hope that was a good bet on their part, because I think it will be a very successful project. With wind there is a large expense upfront. Because this project is so novel, there was considerable nervousness about investing in it. Without that grant, the Abbey would have needed to seek outside grants or donors who wanted to support such a project. This is challenging, takes a lot of time, and competes against other demands for other school projects. Hopefully, this project will pave the way for others. In the future, installing a wind turbine may be less novel, a more obvious way to do things.

Q. What is your advice for others seeking to install a commercial-scale turbine at their institution?

A. You need somebody like Henry duPont who really knows all the ins and outs of the process, who can give you good advice about site, wind resource, available machines, and contacts. This is a specialized field; you need people who have been involved with other projects. Also, you have to talk to your neighbors, right from the get-go, so they are involved in the process. It makes people nervous when you install something so big in your neighborhood.

This information was last updated on September 14, 2006