Home turbines test rules on wind power

By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / December 9, 2010

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A Quincy resident is seeking to attach two small wind power turbines to his waterfront home in Houghs Neck, in the city’s first proposal for a wind power generator in a residential district.

Charles Cote and SunWind LLC, an alternative energy systems designer based in Orleans, are proposing to install the turbines, which will extend 10 feet above the 39-foot roof line of Cote’s single-family house on Post Island Road. The towers are each expected to produce 1,500 kilowatt hours of electrical energy a year to be applied directly to household use.

The proposal is likely to test the city’s zoning rules for wind turbines and neighbors’ response to the machines. City zoning rules adopted several years ago permit wind turbines in residential areas, but they require setbacks from neighbors’ property lines of 1 1/2 times the height of the turbine to protect neighbors from damage if a tower falls.

SunWind is seeking an exemption from the setback requirement on the grounds that the 49-foot-tall turbine will not be a freestanding tower but will be affixed to the house and unlikely to fall from its base. The project lacks the 73-foot setback required, said SunWind president Timothy Holmes. Getting relief from the rule requires a hearing before the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals, at which the public will get its chance to weigh in on the proposal.

“They’re taking a page out of guidelines for utility wind power turbines,’’ Holmes said of Quincy’s setback rule. Compared with a large, commercial turbine set on its own free-standing tower, the turbine proposed for Cote’s house is more like “a big weathervane,’’ Holmes said.

The plan is to install one turbine on the house’s east or water side and, if all goes well, the second on the other side after six months.

While there has been no public opposition yet, SunWind agreed to postpone an initial hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals from Dec. 7 until next month in order to arrange a meeting with neighbors first.

City Councilor Margaret LaForest said it was important to hold a public information meeting before the zoning board hearing.

“When something can be controversial, you want to make sure the process is solid,’’ said LaForest, who represents Houghs Neck.

If neighbors hear about a wind turbine proposal “through the grapevine’’ rather than at a meeting, it’s easy to picture a large wind tower instead of “a satellite dish style residence attachment,’’ she said.

It’s also important to examine all issues pertaining to residential wind power because the results of the first proposal are likely to affect the future. “A lot of people have their eyes on it,’’ LaForest said.

Jay Duca, Quincy’s director of inspectional services, said SunWind’s proposal is the first time the hearing process will address questions such as whether “fall zone’’ setbacks should apply to turbines attached to a house.

“This is the first one,’’ Duca said. “As with many other communities, there will be a public hearing process to work out some of the answers to these questions.’’

Duca said the city’s rules are not intended to throw cold water on wind power proposals. “We’re open to being helpful. We think wind energy is a good thing,’’ he said.

While a first for Quincy, the turbine project isn’t the first time Cote has turned to sustainable energy to meet his household’s needs. He already has a solar panel installation that produces about 6,000 kilowatt hours a year, Holmes said.

By adding two turbines, producing 3,000 more kilowatt hours, green energy would account for about 75 percent of the annual estimated household usage of 12,000 kilowatt hours.

Responses to wind power turbines proposed in residential neighborhoods elsewhere have produced objections to factors such as their size, sound, and shadow — the so-called flicker effect.

Holmes said his project’s turbines would not be big enough to produce the effects caused by large commercial turbines. The blade diameter of a Swift turbine, the kind that would go on Cote’s house, is 7 feet, producing less flicker shadow than a flag on a flagpole. While concerns have been raised about potential “ice throw’’ from large turbine blades following heavy snows, 7-foot blades are too small to produce that effect, he said.

Sound has been reduced by adding an outer ring “defuser’’ connecting the five blades, which “looks like a steering wheel.’’ Holmes said. The ring increases power and reduces the sound of wind resistance.

Holmes said his sound studies with a decibel meter at the project’s site recorded ambient noise readings of about 46 decibels. The machine produces 35 decibels, he said.

LaForest said she won’t be able to host a public information meeting on the proposal until next month. Depending on whether other city panels such as the committee that wrote Quincy’s wind energy ordinance want to hold meetings of their own, the earliest the proposal is likely to appear before the zoning board would be Jan. 26.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.

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