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Town takes on leadership role -- Offshore example

The tiny Massachusetts town of Hull, just south of Boston, is researching the potential for siting four offshore wind turbines about 1.6 miles off its coast. If the plan is successful, Hull could be the site of the United States' first offshore wind plant, which could show the way for the much publicised and much larger Cape Wind project of 130 turbines proposed for nearby Nantucket Sound.

Jim Gordon, head of Cape Wind, says he hopes Hull will be successful in its attempt. "It will be good for Cape Wind, and for the rest of the offshore wind industry," he says. Hull has a history of being ahead with wind power. It erected New England's first commercial scale wind turbine, a Vestas 660 MW machine, on its shoreline in late 2001. Pleased with the results, the town's light board erected a second machine, a Vestas 1.8 MW unit, further inland atop the town's closed landfill site, more than a year ago.

The investments have been an economic success, encouraging townspeople to try for a small offshore project to be installed on an underwater obstruction known as Harding's Ledge. The four turbines, with ratings of 3-5 MW, would be built in water depths of roughly six to 12 metres, about two miles from a land-based grid interconnection. One matter of concern is wave heights, however. Hull is typically hit hard during North Atlantic storms, particularly in the winter.

If the offshore project is built, the output combined with that of the two turbines on land would on average provide all the town's electrical needs. The town would export power to the New England grid when more wind power was being produced than needed and import power during calm periods. Hull is able to operate its own turbines because the town enjoys the relatively unusual status of a municipality with its own light department.

The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MTC), which controls a sum of public money slated for renewable energy projects, has agreed to provide up to $1.7 million as a "forgivable" loan to get the research started. Under the terms of the loan, if the town fails to proceed with the project, the money need not be paid back. If the town builds the project, loan repayment will be required.

The state has agreed to underwrite the risk because the initial wind resource data gleaned by researchers is seen as providing long term information that could help further the development of the offshore wind industry in Massachusetts. "MTC is interested primarily because of our commitment to offshore wind. We hope to establish leadership in offshore wind," says the agency's Greg Watson, who doubles as an advisor on renewable energy to the state's new governor, Deval Patrick. "We want some experience. We find that when projects are built that directly benefit adjacent communities, they tend to be accepted a lot more than projects that are operated from the outside." Watson says he expects the feasibility study to be completed within the next year.

Observers say that if the project passes both technical and environmental muster, it has a good chance of being built. The state as a whole is immensely proud of the two Hull turbines and public support for the four offshore turbines is likely to be strong. Perhaps equally important, Patrick announced his candidacy for the gubernatorial post by standing beneath the town's first wind turbine. Since he assumed office at the start of 2006, the state has begun taking a leadership role in renewable energy efforts. Patrick has been active in encouraging a variety of renewable energy businesses located in the state.

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