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City school looks to add wind turbines

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September 13, 2007

By ANDY KIRKALDY

VERGENNES — The Vergennes Development Review Board on Monday held a public hearing but made no ruling on a topic that has intrigued city officials: a proposal by the Champlain Valley Christian School (CVSC) to put four wind turbines on top of the new high school it is building off Church Street on the Waltham town line.

CVSC representative Ted Boelens said on Tuesday that school officials estimate that the four turbines, which he said at the Monday hearing looked like larger versions of “55-gallon drums,” would save the school about $6,000 a year in its power bills.

The purchase and installation of the four wind turbines, plus smaller power-generating solar panels and needed electronic equipment, will cost about $36,000, Boelens said. Efficiency Vermont is granting the school $18,000 toward the project.

The power generated by electronics equipment would be transmitted to the school when needed, and back into the larger power grid when it its not; Green Mountain Power would buy the extra electricity. The Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) on Sept. 7 approved CVSC for a “net-metering” project, Boelens said.

Vergennes zoning administrator Mel Hawley said on Tuesday he believed the city DRB did have jurisdiction over the proposal because of language in city zoning laws specific to alternative energy projects, but also said he planned to double-check that question with the PSB. The PSB has ruled directly on other net-metering proposals in Addison and Ripton in recent years.

Regardless, the projected quick payback time on the CVSC’s upfront investment — three years with the Efficiency Vermont grant — has caught the attention of city officials.

City Manager Renny Perry is looking into whether this type of turbines might be useful for Vergennes, particularly at its sewer plant, a heavy power user.

“I got information … to see if we could apply it to any of our buildings,” Perry said. “It seems like it might be possible to do it to some degree.”

Mayor Michael Daniels, who oversees buildings in the state’s northwestern quadrant for the Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services, said after speaking to Boelens and the company that markets and installs the turbines that he believes Vergennes and state might benefit from the turbines.

As of Monday Daniels was still awaiting a packet of technical data for an engineer to review, but Daniels was already encouraged enough to do at least one preliminary study.

“We’ve done an investigation on whether it would be feasible to do it on top of the (Burlington) courthouse,” Daniels said.

Daniels said the turbines’ barrel-shaped design gives them both flexibility and stability. 

“The beauty of this it does not matter which way the wind is blowing … the minimum is 3 mph, and there is no top max,” Daniels said. “The more wind you’ve got, the more power.”

The mayor said he can foresee the city using turbines to cut its energy costs in the future.

“We’re hoping that we can,” Daniels said. “Oh, definitely.”

NOISE QUESTION

On Monday night the DRB made no decision about turbine installation, which the school hopes to begin in the spring after building construction is complete, but instead the board continued its hearing until Oct. 1. That extra time will allow members to evaluate a noise question raised by neighbors Lynn and Michael Donnelly.

Boelens said company representatives have told school officials the turbines, which will be about 33 feet off the ground at their peak, will generate 4.5 decibels of noise at a distance of five feet.

“They are silent, which will be a big plus,” he said.

But DRB members were not sure at the meeting just how quiet that was, and also wanted to answer concerns about what would happen if the turbines became noisier after years of use.

“If there was an issue, how would that be controlled by the city?” Lynn Donnelly asked. 

Hawley said the decibel level written into city zoning regulations is not really intended to deal with an ongoing noise source, but said the board could “write a more stringent level into the conditions” of a potential approval of the project.

Boelens said the turbines, which have a series of vertically mounted blades inside a cylinder, have been tested in severe conditions.

“They had one going for two straight years in Anchorage, Alaska, with no problems,” he said.

Boelens added that if the turbines were generating enough noise to upset neighbors, they would also be disrupting education at the school.

“We’re not going to stand for that, either,” he said.

According to one source, unless there are maintenance problems noise should not be much of a problem. At renewwisconsin.org a noise-level analysis conducted for a new runway at Wisconsin’s Dane County Regional Airport included decibel-level equivalents.  

According to the Web site, 10 decibels is “very faint,” and 20 decibels is comparable to the “rustle of leaves” or “whispering.” A “quiet auto at low speed” hits 50 decibels, while “an ordinary conversation at three feet” reaches 60 decibels.

DRB chairman Mike Ferland suggested recessing the hearing until October, when the board will have had time to do its own research and impose reasonable noise limits in writing a decision.

“I’d like some sense of this for our conditions,” Ferland said.

Meanwhile, Boelens said he has been so impressed with the wind turbines he is considering one for his Panton home.

“I think you’re going to see many more of them,” he said. “This is sort of breaking ground for this in Vergennes."

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