Cranberry bog owners consider wind power: Turbines offer hope of recouping losses
Cranberry bog owners have had it every which way but easy over the past 10 years. Pressures from declining crop prices and interested developers have made it hard to resist stepping out of the cranberry business. For some cranberry growers, the answer to the problem is blowing in the wind.
Beaufort Windpower, a Boston-based alternative energy company, is working on Bogwind – a project that will put utility-scale wind turbines on bogs – creating an almost guaranteed revenue stream for bog owners at least for as long as people still use electricity.
“The idea of what we’re trying to do is combine the environmental and economic benefits of wind power with strengthening and preserving the agricultural land of Massachusetts,” Glen Berkowitz, president of Beaufort Windpower LLC, said.
The process to bring wind power to Wareham began in 2005. Marion, Mattapoisett and Rochester started their exploration of harnessing windpower in earnest within the past two years. Data collections sites for the tri-towns are located on property within the Nasketucket Bay State Reservation in Mattapoisett and land owned by the Old Rochester Regional School District in Marion. The ORR school complex is physically located in Mattapoisett.
“In the spring of ’05, I studied what all of the wind power projects in New England were all about,” Berkowitz said.
In southeastern Massachusetts, the most successful projects have been small-scale and generate power for either municipal or institutional use. The largest proposed commercial project, proposed for Nantucket Sound by a company called Cape Wind, has stalled out over a myriad of concerns ranging from the ecological to the aesthetic.
Berkowitz wanted to do something different that would mitigate a lot of those concerns for a commercial project.
“On the one hand, doing wind is such a good idea, but on the other hand people have a lot of concerns about them,” he said.
While trying to figure out what steps to take Berkowitz met Wareham bog owner Peter Beaton, who is one of the largest bog owners in the area.
“Peter had said that the cranberry industry was depressed and they were looking to diversify,” Berkowitz said.
Prices for cranberries had fallen by as much as 80 percent while costs for labor and energy were on the rise, so Bogwind was a match made in heaven. Cranberry growers had the open space and Beaufort Windpower had a lease arrangement that would let growers like Beaton keep doing what their families had been doing for generations. A few towers would be placed on bogs away from residential areas, hopefully mitigating those complaints while helping to preserve open space.
The plan was modeled on projects in the Midwest, where hundreds of farmers have leased parts of their farms for wind turbines. Bolstered by grants from federal and state agencies like the USDA, these projects have helped farmers find new sources of income in the face of low prices for agricultural products. Bogwind applied for a USDA grant to fund its preliminary studies and recently received $50,000.
Grants will go a long way toward making Bogwind viable. Wareham’s cranberry bogs, unlike Nantucket Sound or a windswept mountaintop, are not famous for their strong winds. Lower wind speeds, in spite of advances in turbine technology, mean lower profits, so Beaufort Windpower looked for ways to keep costs low so that profit margins could remain healthy. Thankfully, the bogs offered up their own solutions.
“More extreme locations are more difficult to get to,” Beaton said.
Reaching those windswept peaks with heavy-duty construction equipment can be an expensive and environmentally destructive proposition. On cranberry bogs all the roads are already laid out and the trees have been cleared, leaving plenty of room for a turbine that has a 16-foot wide footprint, Berkowitz said. Maintenance costs are also lower compared to locations like Nantucket Sound, where damage in the winter might not get repaired until the following spring, whereas bogs are active all year round as operators fight to keep their crop save from the ravages of nature, he said.
Beaufort Windpower is looking at four bogs in Wareham, each about two miles inland, to take advantage of the sea breeze while leaving the coast clear of potentially obnoxious landmarks. Although the technology has advanced to handle lower wind speeds economically, Berkowitz still had to be sure that the conditions in Wareham were right to support wind power.
After the town passed a wind power zoning bylaw in 2005, the sixth town in the state to do so, Berkowitz applied to put up two 197-foot tall meteorological study towers to test the wind at Parker Mills bog and Eagle Holt bog. The towers went up in late 2006 and early 2007 to track the strength of the wind for at least 12 months. Powered by a small solar panel and a satellite transceiver, the towers transmit more than 5,000 pieces of information each day to Berkowitz’s computer.
The towers are about 130 feet short of the mark that Berkowitz wants to hit with the wind turbines. Practical considerations, such as cost and FAA regulations, limited the scale of these towers, which posed a few problems. Thankfully researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst came up with a mathematical model that allows people to project wind strength at varying heights by looking at data from lower points because wind generally gets stronger higher. Mathematicians may not be necessary much longer however.
Secondwind, a Somerville-based company that manufactures wind assessment technologies, came up with an innovative alternative to the survey towers that can measure wind data up to 600 feet. With help from Wareham School Department Superintendent Jim Collins along with the assistant superintendent, who helped to get Berkowitz municipal broadband access, Berkowitz was able to secure a beta version of this technology.
Placed at Eagle Holt bog near one of the existing survey towers, the device, called Triton, looks like a plastic garbage bin on steroids. Inside, pointing upward, are several sets of speakers and microphones that send sound into the sky and then listen for changes in the signal. Computers inside of the device then interpret the data and give a more definitive reading with as much information as the survey towers.
The primary advantage of the system is its portability; the unit can be hoisted into the back of a pickup truck, which is a lot easier than assembling and disassembling a 3,000-pound steel tower. This means that it’s easier to look at more sites with less expense. The technology is still new, so many of the kinks need to be worked out. Right now its results are being compared to readings from the survey tower.
The finished project is still a couple of years off. Once all of the environmental and engineering studies have been completed there is a 12-month waiting list for wind turbines from General Electric due in part to a lack of industrial capacity and demand from around the world.
For bog owners around southeastern Massachusetts, the results of this project could help preserve a way of life that has been passed down through the generations.
“It seems to be a very viable alternative to selling off your property,” Beaton said. “That’s a crop you can only harvest once.”
- Wareham (Mass.) Courier