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A proud town of revolutionaries -- Princeton repowering

Citizens of the tiny town of Princeton in central Massachusetts have a history of thinking for themselves. In 1786, angered by the domination of the wealthy business interests that controlled the new American government, local farmers took up arms. Aided by neighbouring towns, about 350 farmer-soldiers attacked an armoury and held out against the government for months.

Almost 200 years later, in 1980, another uprising occurred in the town, led in part by the descendants of some of those same farmer-soldiers. Angered by the domination of wealthy oil interests and the prospect of buying electricity produced by a much-hated nuclear power plant, the town decided to go renewable.

Ma-and-pa backyard hydropower suddenly appeared throughout the town. Princetonians also voted to become the first municipality in the American northeast (and quite likely in the whole nation, although no one there knows for sure) to adopt wind power. "I was so proud to be part of the group that fought to get this 20 years ago, particularly when we didn't sign up with Seabrook [the local nuclear plant]" says Dolores Lyons, who triples as town employee, town selectman and town activist (there are only about 3500 town residents).

Princeton, which operates its own municipal light department (of course), erected eight hundred-foot latticework 40 kW wind turbines, built by Enertech, which have provided roughly 1% of the town's 5 MW energy needs over the last two decades. Now the town wants to replace the old units with two 1.5 MW turbines, made by either by GE Wind or NEG Micon. Community Energy Inc of Wayne, Pennsylvania, is overseeing the project, which received some "pre-development" funding from the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust Fund. "We think we can go from one percent wind to forty percent wind power," says light department general manager Jon Fitch.

At a January town meeting to discuss the change, enthusiasm for the project was strong. However, some bird advocates worry about bird kills. The old hundred-foot towers, which are barely visible above the tree line, will give way to towers that could be as high as 230 feet. Each fall, thousands upon thousands of hawks migrate through the town on their way south.

A final vote on the project, which is expected to cost about $3.5 million, will be taken in early February. Fitch is confident. "Most people realise that we have to live with the look and feel of wind turbines. We have 18 years of experience, and we know what to do and what not to do."

The town currently gets about 30% of its electricity from renewables, almost all from hydropower. If the wind project performs up to expectations, that means that on the best days, the 36-square-mile town (which has placed nearly 40% of its land in conservation) would again be revolutionary.

"We think we can get well over half our energy from renewables," says Fitch. "We're not talking about a project that's theoretical. We don't think we're going to solve the world's problems with two turbines. But I do think it helps point the way towards the future."

Dolores Lyons is a bit more forceful: "Just wait until Cape Cod sees those majestic towers up there," she says, referring to contentious plans to build an offshore wind farm in nearby Nantucket Sound. "They're so gorgeous. I can't think of anything more beneficial to the future, for our kids and grandkids."

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