Boston Museum of Science mounts nation’s first rooftop Wind Turbine Lab

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A science experiment for the public to explore the potential of wind power

Boston Museum of Science wind turbine.

BOSTON—In partnership with the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust, the Museum of Science, Boston installed the nation’s first museum-based rooftop Wind Turbine Lab in the summer of 2009. As the centerpiece of its new Catching the Wind exhibit, the Museum installed nine wind turbines of five different types during Earth Month 2009. A symbol of the Museum’s Green Initiative that will change the Cambridge-Boston skyline, the lab will demonstrate turbines that small businesses and homeowners can mount on their own roofs, while generating valuable experience to help government officials and renewable energy professionals make informed decisions about projects and policy.

Two turbines are in place on the Cambridge side of the Museum’s roof. Three other kinds of turbines are mounted on the Museum’s Boston side. One type, a bank of five smaller turbines, is visible only from the Charles River. The largest of the five types is 40 feet tall; the smallest, about seven feet — with 5- to 18-foot diameters.

Intended to be a powerful teaching tool, the Museum project is both a public exhibit on wind energy and a laboratory, yielding original research data on the effectiveness of five small building-integrated turbines.

A Learning Experience

“This is a giant science experiment,” says David Rabkin, Farinon Director for Current Science and Technology at the Museum. “No one has tested five different small turbines in a rooftop laboratory. Although there’s lots of interest in small-scale wind turbines, we found little data on their performance and impact. Despite a year of collecting data on the wind at the Museum, we still don’t really know enough about the turbines to predict their performance.” The Museum will investigate their strengths and weaknesses by monitoring local wind conditions and wind power generation data. Presenting the differences in design and function of five kinds of wind technologies and what one needs to consider in using them, the project will engage the public in critical thinking about an important source of renewable energy.

AeroVironment designs wind turbines for building parapets.

The Museum initially explored wind turbines as a way of generating clean electricity and creating a compelling complement to a wind power exhibit. But a year-long study by Boreal Renewable Energy Development of Arlington, MA, showed the Museum site to have limited wind resources and to pose engineering and permitting challenges. As a result, the Museum and the Renewable Energy Trust refocused the project on generating as much practically useful information and experience as possible.

The Museum shares all of its findings through interactive displays, programs, a website, and other outreach to the public including the companies whose innovative technologies are being tested. Thus the project serves both as education for the general public and as a resource for renewable energy professionals, building managers, and government officials.

Inside the Museum at the Catching the Wind exhibit, visitors can find out how and why the turbines produce electricity, while also monitoring live wind and power data via a system designed by Apterra Technologies of Stow, MA. In addition, visitors can literally feel how strong the wind needs to blow to turn a turbine and generate electricity using interlocking gears. After learning about what to consider when selecting and siting a turbine, visitors can try their hand at the Wind Power Challenge game, choosing a location and a turbine type to see if it could power their home, business, or community. Visitors will discover the stories of several different sites across Massachusetts where turbines were—and were not—installed, including the Museum’s own case study. A map of Massachusetts identifies the windier areas of the state.

A Commitment to Sustainability

Building the country’s first museum-based wind turbine lab involved immense challenges from the start. In addition to obtaining variances and permitting for both Cambridge and Boston, the three-year project involved selecting and siting the turbines to maximize wind exposure, visibility, and safety in five different “microclimates.” Each turbine was its own engineering project. The Museum also worked with its neighbors, community groups, the Charles River Conservancy, the Charles River Watershed Association, the cities of Boston and Cambridge, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and many other groups to assess the turbines’ impact on the neighborhood, local zoning, and area wildlife. Unlike the “not in my backyard” response to some industrial turbines, the Museum’s project has elicited public support from neighbors and the cities.

Estimated Power and Costs

“At our site and with today’s economy, we need to think of the project as an exhibit and science experiment with some economic payback, not a business proposition,” says David Rabkin, Farinon Director for Current Science and Technology at the Museum.

The Swift wind turbine at the Boston Science Museum.

Small turbines, like those on the Museum roof, costing from $5,000 to $40,000, can generate up to 6 kilowatts—enough to power a home or a small business. (Large turbines, like those in the Nantucket Sound’s Cape Wind project, have rotors reaching 300 feet in diameter generating up to 5 megawatts of power.) The Museum hopes to generate enough electricity to power two or three suburban homes, only a fraction of the Museum’s total power use. Because of its complexity, the lab cost about $300,000.

While there’s uncertainty about how the turbines will perform, the Museum’s best estimate is that each of its turbines might produce the following percentage of electricity used in a typical American home:

Mariah Power Windspire: about 15% (with a 1.2kW at-peak vertical-axis turbine about 10 meters high)

Southwest Windpower SkyStream 3.7: about 22% (with a downwind, horizontal-axis, 2.4kW design and a 3.7-meter rotor diameter)

Cascade Engineering Swift: about 18% (with a 1.5kW upwind, horizontal-axis and a 2.1-meter diameter, featuring unique rotor and tail designs)

• A bank of five AeroVironment AVX1000 turbines: about 60% (a directional design for building parapets to take advantage of higher speed winds rushing up and over buildings, each unit rated at 1kW peak with a 1.5-meter diameter)

• The Proven 6: almost 75% (with a 6kW downwind, horizontal axis and a 5.5-meter rotor diameter)

The Liberty Science Center, Jersey City, New Jersey, the Da Vinci Science Center, Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the Great Lakes Science Center, Cleveland, Ohio, all feature individual wind turbines, some as high as 150 feet, but the Museum of Science is the only museum testing five different types and experimenting with roof installation.

Support

The Wind Turbine Lab is made possible with support from the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust and the Charles Sumner Bird Foundation with additional support from Keren Schlomy, Esq., Rubin and Rudman LLP, and New England Wind Systems. Special thanks to Boreal Renewable Energy Development, Titan Electric Corporation, the Cities of Boston and Cambridge, MA Audubon, the Charles River Conservancy, the Charles River Watershed Association, and the communities of East Cambridge and Boston’s West End.

Catching the Wind is made possible by support from the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust with funding from Bank of America and the Charles Sumner Bird Foundation. Additional support has been provided by: ANSYS, Inc. (NASDAQ: ANSS), Holy Name Central Catholic Junior Senior High School, Massachusetts Port Authority, Newton South High School, Andrew Stern, the Town of Hull, and TRC Companies, Inc. (NYSE: TRR).

Both the exhibit and Wind Turbine Lab are also supported by a gift from the Francis Wright Davis Fund.

The exhibit is ongoing and included with regular Exhibit Halls admission, mos.org.

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