I went to my 50th Anniversary reunion at Portsmouth Abbey School in September and got to see something new on the property -- a giant white wind turbine sitting atop the high school campus like a guardian bird, an outward sign of the Abbey's inner green. Monks stuck in the Middle Ages? Not at Portsmouth.
The Abbey's wind turbine is a major act of leadership by the Abbey. It:
- Was the first utility-scale wind turbine in the entire state of Rhode Island.
- Prompted Rhode Island Gov. Carcieri to officiate at the Nov. 2005 ground-breaking.
- Won the 2007 Environmental Merit Award by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
- Won the 2007 Conservation Award by the Garden Club of America.
- Won the 2006 Senator John H. Chafee Award for Outstanding Conservation Project.
- Got Brother Joseph invited to address the State House on the innovation.
Brother Joseph functions as the Abbey's environmental conscience. He stressed to me that the wind turbine is only part of an overall effort to reduce energy use and cost through recycling and conservation programs.
The Abbey considered several renewable energy options. The wind turbine seemed to make the most sense economically and was most in keeping with the history of the site of the school, since windmills were part of local colonial history. In December 2004, the Abbey applied to the State of Rhode Island Renewable Energy Fund for their support of this wind power project. The Fund Board made available their advisory resources as well as a grant for more than one-third of the estimated project costs. Roger Williams University provided guidance in the form of a detailed study of wind strength and the Abbey's electrical usage patterns. The study found that a mid-sized wind turbine would suffice. An advantage for the Abbey was that it could place the turbine 750 feet from the nearest neighbor.
In March 2005, the Abbey applied to the Town of Portsmouth for the special-use permit and variance, which was, with strong support from neighbors, unanimously granted. The Abbey installed a Vestas 660kW wind turbine generator with three 77-foot carbon fiber blades atop a 164-foot tapered tubular steel tower. The rotor turns at a constant 28.5 revolutions per minute. The structure is 240 feet to its highest point. The turbine tower rests on and is bolted to a concrete foundation with 80 one-inch-diameter 27-foot-long rods set in a 30-foot hole.
After the foundation was completed in January 2006, the State of Connecticut Police Department gave permission for the oversize lower part of the tower to travel through the state on a Friday. The turbine arrived in March 2006 and began providing electricity for the grid at 10am, March 31, 2006.
One year later, it had generated nearly 1.3 million kWh of "clean" electricity and had supplied 39 percent of the School's electricity use. The turbine was quiet when I visited, making a sound like wind in trees, but in its first year of operation the gusts were as high as 67 mph. The turbine generates power in wind up to 55 mph, then pitches each of the three blades to a 90-degree angle and waits for the wind to subside to 45 mph before starting to turn again. During its first year of operation, the Abbey earned $222,710 from the investment, including $64,661 in renewable energy credits, $28,496 in wholesale electricity sold back to the grid, and $129,553 in retail electricity displaced.
As someone who attended Benedictine schools (Ampleforth and Portsmouth Abbey) for six years from age 10, the imagery of the giant wind-driven power source hovering over the Abbey and School is deeply satisfying. Could there be a modified line in the liturgy -- "I lift up mine eyes to the hilltop, whence cometh my power"? Will the Abbey have a procession from the wind turbine in its Pentecost celebrations? Forgive my final question: Could a possible side benefit be that Abbey School students improve their aptitude for learning new languages, including the many languages of nature?