Photo: UCS

On Top of a Wind Turbine, On Top of the World

, senior energy analyst, Clean Energy | April 25, 2017, 8:49 am EST
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Stand atop a wind turbine and you get some powerful perspective. When you’re 280 feet off the ground, your feet clinging to the deck, the breeze blowing past, you’ve got a clear view of the power of wind energy. This past summer, I experienced it first-hand.

It’s a view that’s out of this world, and in it.

Out of this world, and in it

It’s easy to get excited about wind power when you see the latest figures—so many new wind turbines installed, so much more under construction. The excitement amps up even more when you see the costs of wind power continuing to drop, making wind a virtual slam dunk for electricity generation in broad swathes of our nation.

To help you feel that excitement, the Union of Concerned Scientists set out to capture some of it in visual form, too.

Our destination: the New York communities of Lowville and Martinsburg, home of the 195-turbine Maple Ridge Wind Farm. We talked with local residents and community leaders about what the Maple Ridge project has meant for their community, how it has fit in. We checked out the wind farm from a range of angles and perspectives. And, yes, we climbed a turbine.

A whole new perspective. Photo: UCS

What it’s like to climb a wind turbine

The mechanics of ascent are simple enough, in theory at least. In our case, we scaled five separate ladder sections inside the tower, most 60 to 80 feet at a stretch, each topped by a platform. We then climbed into the nacelle, the central part of the wind turbine where the hub and blades connect. And then we made our way out the hatch in the ceiling of the nacelle to get on top.

Though my heart and knees didn’t always seem to know it, we were never in any danger, of course. The Maple Ridge operators, like wind industry professionals across the country, take safety seriously. We were well educated ahead of time with an instructional video, written materials, and an in-person orientation.

Once on the site, we were harnessed, hooked up, or on solid footing every step, rung, and roof of the way. The harness lets you hook into a cable running up the ladder, so that even if you lose your footing on the way up or down, you don’t go very far. At each platform I shut behind me the hatch I had just come through so I couldn’t go anywhere unintended while transferring my hookup from the ladder cable to rings in the tower wall, to catch my breath and wait for the rest of the group. And before climbing out on top, I hooked into a ring on the roof. Plenty safe.

It is a long way up. though—hard on the muscles and unsettling for the novice soul.

One small step for a human… or not. The way up inside the turbine tower. Photo: John Rogers

It’s not magic, it’s engineering!

But the climb gives you some time to reflect on the miraculous engineering that makes it all possible. Some 8,000 components have to come together in perfect harmony to create a working wind turbine. And with 52,000 turbines now installed in our country, companies in America have assembled that combination of components many, many times.

It all adds up, one megawatt (MW) at a time. A single turbine can generate enough electricity to supply hundreds of typical US homes. The 195 turbines at Maple Ridge add up to 322 MW, generating enough electricity to power well over 100,000 homes. On an average single day, the electricity from Maple Ridge would be enough to light more than 50 million light bulbs for the evening.

Taking a break at the top, with Bevan Griffiths-Sattenspiel of EDPR. Photo: Audrey Eyring/UCS

Nationwide, the 82,000 MW of wind power now gracing US lands supply more than 5 percent of our electricity, or enough for more than 20 million homes.

And those wind turbines do it without polluting the air or water, without consuming water, and with no emissions of CO2 or other gases that cause climate change.

All with the unstoppable power of the wind. Exciting indeed—even without the turbine climb.

“A godsend”

The excitement in the surrounding community, though, isn’t fueled by light bulbs or heart-palpitating ascents. It comes from having those turbines as an important part of everyday life.

Tom Schneeberger, who sits on the school board and whose wife owns and runs Gary’s Restaurant, a local diner (and, with local schoolkids, put out a book on the project), talks excitedly about Maple Ridge. There’ve been “all kinds of ways that the [wind] project has helped to sustain our way of living here,” he says—in the school, for road maintenance, even for upgrading the grandstand at the local fairgrounds.

Tom Schneeberger and I “Catch the Wind” (and spin, spin, spin) at Gary’s Restaurant, Lowville, NY. Photo: Audrey Eyring

Local School Superintendent Cheryl Steckley, who works on the front lines of school budget issues, speaks about the positive effects of the wind project’s annual payments (known as “PILOT” payments), half of which go to the school district:

In the initial year of the PILOT, taxes were dropped. For the next seven years taxes were held stable. We had two years where our taxes increased less than two percent. And we are now stabilized again. So the true tax rate to our residents has been cut in half from what it was… in the initial stages of the pilot. So it’s had an amazing impact on our school district.

For her, Maple Ridge has meant stabilized taxes, better school facilities, and expanded school programs.

For Martinsburg resident Terry Thisse, the project has meant income for hosting turbines on his land, increased activity for his local business, and lower taxes and better municipal services for the people he serves as town supervisor. When he and other decision makers were considering the costs and benefits of the project when it was first proposed, he says, “it turned out to be a no-brainer.”

Bill and Patty Burke host seven wind turbines on land that’s been in his family for five generations. Bill is particularly effusive in his discussion of the wind farm (which may explain why he also works part time for the wind farm giving tours). He talks glowingly about the check that arrives every three months in the mailbox—“income off the land where there’s no expenses involved.” The turbines “have been a godsend to our being able to stay in this house,” he says. “A great asset… a blessing to our goals in life.”

And at an even larger scale, Maple Ridge, says Tom Schneeberger, “has put Lewis County on the map.”

“A godsend” – Bill Burke and turbines. Photo: Audrey Eyring

Motherhood, apple pie, and wind power

Along with the tax benefits of the PILOT payments, the wind farm has meant jobs, both during construction and after. Local businesses get extra business from project-related activity, and the lease payments to local farmers and other landowners become dollars that circulate through the local economy, creating even more jobs.

And that brings up another thing that’s visible—or not visible—from on top of a wind turbine, or from nearby. None of this looks like a partisan issue. Few people would object to getting quality public services funded by something other than homeowner and business taxes. Jobs and land use payments make sense whatever your political affiliation.

It’s all just about making good use of local resources in ways that build community, rather than tearing it down.

And that’s what communities across America have discovered about wind power. In rural areas that have lost jobs and people and ways of life, wind projects like Maple Ridge have meant jobs, economic development, and more cash in the community. Another chance to help make farming and ranching viable even in this day and age.

Photo: Audrey Eyring

The view from here

Maple Ridge is exceptional, but it’s not unusual given this incredible time for wind. Forty-one states now have utility-scale wind farms, and taller towers and longer blades have meant that wind power is a viable option in even more locations around the country. And a whole new sector of wind power launched last year, when the first offshore wind farm in the Americas turned on next to Block Island, Rhode Island.

We’re hoping our new video helps convey some of that excitement.

Because from atop a wind turbine, you can see communities that are doing better because of what wind farms bring with them. Whatever your vantage point on the US wind industry, you can see a sector that is imbued with a whole lot of momentum from recent years’ progress, and a whole lot of promise for the days ahead.

As for me, I’ve visited wind farms and geothermal power plants, toured a nuclear power plant, and climbed onto plenty of roofs to put on solar panels. I’ve spent a quarter century working on expanding access to clean energy at home and abroad. I’ve watched plummeting costs and skyrocketing installation numbers herald a revolution in the electric sector the likes of which America has never seen.

But never had the future of energy been quite so visible to me, quite so present, as when I checked it out from 300 feet above the ground. The mechanics, the markets, the politics, the community—nothing makes that all quite so clear as a clear day, a brisk wind, and an out-of-this-world view of beautiful kinetic sculptures spinning their way to our energy future.

Have I mentioned that I love my job?

To get a good sense of the wind sector’s bright future, you don’t have to climb hundreds of feet up. But it’s good to look at this powerful and exciting technology from a range of perspectives. And if you do make it up on top, the view is well worth the climb. (Even if it does make you look really small.) Photo: UCS

For help with the video project, we owe a big thanks EDP Renewables, Avangrid Renewables, and the Maple Ridge Wind Farm, particularly Bob Burke, Matt Carpenter, Bevan Griffiths-Sattenspiel, Seth Kaplan, Paul Copleman, and Caron Martin, for their help in making our trip and this video possible.

We also owe lots of appreciation to the people of Lowville, Martinsburg, Watson, and Harrisburg, NY, including Cheryl Steckly, Terry Thisse, Bill and Patty Burke, and Tom and Ann Schneeberger.

 

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