CLEAN ENERGY FOR WHOLE COMMUNITIES
LAST NIGHT, I took Tom, Julie, and their classmates to Chatham for pizza and a movie. We ate thin crust at the Sweet Tomatoes pizza shop and then saw The Finest Hours at the Orpheum, an old-fashioned movie theater on Main Street. The movie is about a heroic night rescue by the Coast Guard in the Atlantic Ocean off Chatham, during a February blizzard in 1952. When a cargo freighter broke in half during the storm, four Guardsmen piloted a lifeboat out of Pleasant Bay through blinding snow and massive waves. They crammed thirty-six men into a boat designed to carry twelve, and managed to return to Chatham safely in the dark—with no compass!
Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat CG 36500
This boat was used for one of the most heroic rescues in Coast Guard history.
Needless to say, my companions were impressed, and they talked excitedly about the rescue on the ride home. By the time we got there it was 11:00 p.m., and six tired children were ready for bed. The girls climbed up to their sleeping loft, and the boys straggled down to the cottage behind the house.
THIS MORNING, AFTER A PANCAKE BREAKFAST, we’re all sitting around the kitchen table, talking about bravery. Pretty soon we come around to yesterday, and how nervous José and Tom got when they’d climbed partway up the wind machine tower.
“If I’d had one of those harnesses Gramps talked about, where you can snap yourself into the ladder, then it would be no problem!” says José, a little defensively. Tom agrees.
The three girls look at each other and shake their heads doubtfully. “What about those giant wind machines we saw driving down here?” Amaya asks playfully. On the trip from Boston, they saw several really big wind turbines close to the highway. “Would you dare climb one of those?”
“I think you climb up those inside the towers?” Tom responds tentatively, looking at me. I nod.
“How tall do you think those towers are?” Natasha asks.
Tom whips out his phone and taps in the question, How tall are wind turbine towers? “Wow!” he reports. “The towers can be as much as three hundred feet high! That’s three times as tall as the one here. It says that each blade on the biggest machines can be a hundred feet long—that’s as long as Gramps’s entire tower!”
Wind turbine towers can be up to 300 feet tall.
Paul doesn’t often get excited, or at least he doesn’t really show it. “I estimate that the turbine we passed on the way here yesterday is about two hundred feet tall,” he suggests calmly.
Julie looks impressed. “Then I hope Tom’s right about climbing it from the inside.”
“Actually, those towers are easier to climb than mine,” I say. “Let’s go into the living room, and I’ll show you why.”
Once everyone is gathered around the TV again, I bring up a photo. The camera is looking straight down the interior of a big wind machine tower.
Inside the Wind Machine Tower
Some towers are so big that you can climb up them from the inside.
“See the ladder going up inside? Some of the highest towers even have elevators to carry workers up to the turbine.” I click to another image. “And here’s a picture of someone about your age at the top of a tall tower.”
“Wow! Look at how little that boat seems down below. He must be really high up, ” Tom says. “That is so cool! I wonder where those wind machines are?”
“That’s not a boy, it’s a girl!” Julie protests.
“I think it’s in Denmark,” I tell them. “The Danes are really serious about clean energy.”
View from the Top of a Large Wind Machine
The largest wind turbines rise hundreds of feet up in the air.
The next set of pictures show several wind farms. “Sometimes a large farm can have as many as a hundred and fifty wind turbines.” I explain. “These farms are in Europe, but we have some really big ones, too, in California, Texas, Oregon, Iowa, Indiana, and North Dakota.”
“Check out this last picture,” I add. “This farm in Germany has wind turbines and solar panels working together.”
Tom has another thought. “Aren’t a lot of wind farms out in the ocean?” he asks. “I remember hearing about some people wanting to put up wind turbines in the water somewhere around here.”
Land-Based Wind Turbines
This wind farm stretches as far as the eye can see.
Land-Based Wind Turbines
Farmers can still grow crops on the land around wind turbines.
Land-Based Wind Turbines
Wind farms and solar farms can work together.
To respond, I go to another picture. “You’re right, Tom. The ocean-based farms are mostly in Europe. But this picture shows a small wind farm in the ocean off Block Island. It was the first ocean-based wind farm in the U.S.”
Natasha isn’t sure where Block Island is. “It’s south of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, kind of near Long Island in New York,” Tom explains.
An Ocean-Based Wind Farm near Cape Cod
The ocean is a good place for wind farms because they are mostly out of sight.
Paul has been quiet for a while, thinking about what they’re seeing. Now he asks, “Do the really big wind turbines make a lot more electricity than the smaller ones?”
“Actually, I found a chart that does a good job of answering that question. Take a look at this.”
The children stare for a minute; then Julie speaks. “It looks like the bigger the wind machine is, the more electricity it makes?”
Wind Machines Have Gotten Larger
Today’s largest wind machine towers are seven times as tall as they were in the 1980s, and the turbines are more than 50 times as powerful.
“The picture shows how much electricity each of these turbines produces in an hour, when it’s going full speed,” I explain. “The littlest turbine, on the left, can produce 75 kilowatts each hour, which is more than seven times what my turbine can make.”
“I learned about kilowatt hours for our solar power project,” José chimes in, glancing at Tom and Paul. “One kilowatt is 1,000 watts. So a kilowatt hour means 1,000 watts of electricity used for one hour. That would be like having ten 100-watt lightbulbs in your house turned on for one hour. I also learned that a typical American home uses about 30 kilowatt hours of electricity every day.”
“Okay … so what does that have to do with these wind machines?” Julie looks uncertain.
“Well, kilowatt hours, or kWh, is how we measure power production,” I reply. “But the thing is, the wind doesn’t blow hard enough to make the turbine go full speed all the time.
“Let’s say the small 75-kilowatt turbine is turning at about half speed, making maybe 35 kilowatts each hour. So, how many kilowatts would it make in one 24-hour day?”
Paul answers quickly, doing the math in his head. “Thirty-five times twenty-four … that’s eight hundred and forty.”
“Okay,” I continue, “then how many homes would that turbine take care of in one day?”
“Divide 840 by 30, because each home uses about 30 kilowatts every day. So that would be about 28 homes.”
The girls look amazed by Paul’s math skills. Tom and José aren’t surprised—they’ve been his classmates all year and know how quickly he figures things out.
“Take another look,” I urge them. “See the turbine that produces 750 kilowatts? That’s ten times as powerful as the 75-kilowatt turbine, so it would take care of ten times as many homes—280 homes instead of 28, like the smaller machine.”
“Got it,” Tom says. “So a turbine ten times bigger than the 750-kilowatt turbine could make 7,500 kilowatts. That one way over on the right in the picture.”
“Exactly! And wind machines that size are what we need to produce power for whole communities. In Denmark, they’re using really big turbines—about 8,000 kilowatts, which can provide enough electricity for almost 7,000 homes there. But that would only be enough for about half as many homes in this country, because European homes use about half as much electricity as ours do.”
Tom looks thoughtful. “How many homes are there here in Orleans?” he asks.
“Around three thousand families live here all year. Some houses are only used in the summer.”
“Awesome!” Tom gives José a playful shove. “Hear that? One really big turbine would make enough electricity to take care of all the families living year-round in Orleans. Isn’t that cool?”
“Where would we put it?” José wants to know. “Right in the middle of town?”
“Problem!” Paul says firmly, shaking his head. “A machine that big is going to make noise, and the neighbors won’t like it.”
“Okay, we put it offshore in the ocean, where no one can hear it, and then bring the electricity to the shore through a big cable,” José proposes. “No problem!”
“Right, and we put lights on it, so airplanes won’t hit it and boats can see it at night,” adds Tom. He’s getting psyched about the idea.
Julie looks dreamy, like she’s imagining a big wind machine out in the ocean off Nauset Beach, its long blades turning slowly in the breeze.
“At night, you could stand on the beach and look out at the lights glowing in the darkness,” she says to Natasha and Amaya. “It would be like a magic island out there.”
“Yes, and everyone in town would know exactly where their electricity was coming from,” adds the practical Natasha. “But maybe we’d want to have two wind machines, so if one stopped working, we could still get electricity from the other one.”
“Smart!” Julie exclaims. “Then when both machines are working, maybe Orleans could sell some of the extra power to another town!”
“Two machines sounds like a good idea.”
I’m happy to see the children use their imaginations and consider possibilities. But it’s a nice day, and we’ve been inside most of the morning. So when I suggest a drive to Nauset Beach to look at where our wind turbines might stand someday, they’re more than ready.
THE SUN SLIDES IN AND OUT and out of the clouds as we arrive at the beach, but the temperature is almost 60 degrees—warm for the Thanksgiving weekend. The boys toss around their nerf football, making diving catches into the sand, while Julie, Amaya, and Natasha put together a box kite they bought in town. When it’s ready, they race along the beach into the wind, letting out string as the kite lifts over their heads.
The boys wander over and fling themselves down in the sand to catch their breath and watch. “Wind power at work!” Tom comments. Soon the kite is a couple hundred yards high in the air. With the fresh breeze blowing, the string is pulling hard on Amaya’s hands, so José dashes off to find a piece of driftwood, which they fasten to the string for a handle.
As she takes her turn on the kite string, Natasha resumes the conversation about powering Orleans with a couple of really big wind turbines out in the ocean. “How far out do you think we should put our wind machines?” she asks Julie.
Julie ponders the question and says, “Far enough out so people coming to the beach in the summer don’t complain about the view.”
Tom, who’s used to seeing the wind machine behind my house, has a different perspective. “I’d want it to be close enough so we could see the blades turning. That way we’d know it’s doing its job making clean energy.”
“Close but not too close!” declares Natasha, struggling to hang on to the kite handle.
Flying a kite shows wind power at work.
Coming home from the beach, I detour to the Orleans landfill and park by the fence around the perimeter. Arrayed along the hillside, facing south, are more than 100 solar panels.
“See, Orleans is already thinking about clean energy,” I point out to the children. “When I was growing up here, this was where you just dumped all your trash. Now it’s a recycling center, and the open hillside is a perfect site for the solar farm.”
Paul, Tom, and José are especially interested because of their solar project earlier in the fall. They walk among the rows of panels, talking about how the farm is laid out.
Solar Array at the Orleans Landfill
“Paul, you found out that most solar panels produce about 1,500 watts, or one and a half kilowatts, on a sunny day,” José says to his friend. “If there are 150 panels here, how many kilowatts would they produce all together in a day?”
Again, Paul does the math in his head. “That’s one point five times 150,” he announces, “which is 225 kilowatts. That’s enough to power seven or eight homes, if each uses about 30 kilowatts of electricity in a typical day.”
“Not bad,” Tom observes.
“Actually, the town is using these panels to produce electricity for the various town offices, Town Hall, the police and fire stations, and the schools,” I explain. “It’s one way Orleans is trying to use less energy from burning fossil fuels.”
“But wouldn’t the big wind machines produce a lot more power?” Tom asks.
“Wind machines on land have been discussed,” I reply, “but some people think they would be ugly and make too much noise. As far as I know, no one in Orleans has talked about putting them out in the water.”
Solar arrays are less visible than wind machines, but can’t make electricity at night.
Back home on Pleasant Bay, Tom and Julie notice that the tide is low, exposing sand flats below our house.
“If we dig some clams, could we have them for lunch?” Julie asks eagerly.
“I was going to make turkey sandwiches from the Thanksgiving leftovers,” I say, “but you’re welcome to steamed clams if you can find some. The shellfish basket is down in the basement. Will you dig them by hand?”
“Yup. Tom and I are going to show the others how to find them, because they’ve never done it before.” Off they all troop toward the beach while I organize the kitchen for the noon meal.
When the kids return an hour later, the shellfish basket is at least half full, and no one has cut a finger on the sharp edges of the clam shells while digging—at least not badly. The clams are ready in just a few minutes, and Tom and Julie dive right in, dipping them in melted butter.
Paul and Natasha don’t look eager to join in. “Yeck! It’s so slimy and disgusting-looking!” Natasha turns away as Julie dangles one in front of her.
Julie’s reaction is to drop the body of the clam into her own mouth, bite it off at the neck, and toss away the neck skin. She chews vigorously, swallows, and squeals loudly, “That is so good!” Natasha remains unimpressed.
José and Amaya watch the Julie-and-Natasha show with amusement. Then they tentatively take small clams from the opened shells and dip them in the butter. Holding the steamers over their plates, they eye one another to see who takes the first bite.
How to Eat a Soft-Shelled Clam
“You first!” shrieks Amaya, when the tension gets too great.
“Okay!” José says nervously, biting the clam body off the neck and swallowing it quickly. Silence falls as the others wait for his reaction. He shakes his head back and forth slowly, then smiles. “That’s pretty good!” he announces. “I’ll have another one.”
Amaya follows his lead, swallowing her clam in one gulp and opening a second. Paul and Natasha still aren’t convinced.
After lunch, it’s time for the travelers to return to Boston. I’ll see Julie and Tom over the Christmas holidays, but I’m not sure when my next visit with their friends will be.
“Thanks for letting us stay overnight, and for telling us so much about wind machines,” says Paul very formally, as he shakes my hand.
“Yes, thanks a lot, Gramps,” José adds, “and I really liked the clams!” He and Paul grab their packs and walk toward the car where my son, Monny, waits in the driver’s seat.
I get hugs from Tom and Julie. The other two girls wave and shout their thanks as they climb into my daughter-in-law’s car. I wave back as the cars disappear down the driveway. It was great to have their company, and now I’m looking forward to a peaceful Sunday afternoon.