Malcolm Brown is a retired classics professor who, as a member of the Municipal Light Board, was instrumental in bringing the first wind turbine to US eastern seaboard: in Hull, Massachusetts. The 0.66MW Vestas turbine was installed in December of 2001, and Brown regularly updates the total number of kWh produced since then on the Hull Wind website.
The most recent number is 15,173,260 kWhs. It is tempting to do a back of the envelope cost-benefit calculation for the 10 year old turbine. Hull is one of 40 Massachusetts towns that have a municipally owned electrical utility, and the yield from the turbine replaces the need to buy electricity from the grid, which in 2005 was 8cents per kWh. In other words, Hull's first wind turbine has saved the town in the order of 15 million times 8 cents: $1.2m.
How does this compare against the cost of the turbine?
The installation itself cost $800K, and insurance plus the maintenance contract has amounted to no more than $30k a year - so no more than $300,000 for the first 10 years.
Brown is keen to point out that the turbine has paid for itself by now and that it will continue to produce electricity for the town of Hull at a very low cost, thus reducing the bill of the town's ratepayers for a long time to come. On top of that, a number of subsidies means that Hull has done extremely well out of this deal. There are additional advantages, for example in the reduction of volatility of electricity prices, since Hull is a little more independent of the highly volatile oil prices.
For 5 years, Hull has had a second Vestas turbine almost 3 times as big: 1.8MW. The back of the envelope calculation for this turbine is $3.2m installation cost plus annual maintenance and insurance cost of $60K. And in its just over 5 years of operation it has delivered some 20 million kWhs, amounting to some $1.6m. Disregarding subsidies it will have paid for itself in another 5 years or so. Together, the two turbines produce some 11% of Hull's consumption, and so their reduction of the rate in Hull is considerable.
Brown is disappointed that not many Massachusetts towns have followed Hull's lead. He believes that people are naturally disinclined to accept new technologies. For example, in 2001 it was argued that the wind turbine would damage tourism, an argument well known from the opponents of the Cape Wind offshore wind farm. But in fact, Hull's first wind turbine, located at the very tip of Hull overlooking Boston Bay, has actually attracted more people, as local retailers will confirm.
And indeed, horse and carriage passengers were afraid of the train ride, where they felt they had no control; many people originally wanted no telephone in the home, considering a conversation with strangers within their own four walls an intrusion of privacy; and to this day the Amish will have no electricity in their homes. But in the end, if a new technology makes commercial sense, it will prevail.
Arne Hessenbruch is a Boston World Partnerships Connector and a partner with Boston Denmark Partnerships, helping especially Danish companies come to Boston. He has also helped teach a Masters level course on commercialization of research at MIT for 5 years.
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