For an organization whose job it is to clean water polluted over the years by activities at Joint Base Cape Cod, the Air Force Civil Engineer Center only saw fit that it not contribute more pollution at the same time.
As an environmental clean-up organization, the Air Force Civil Engineer Center started to realize that its operations were doing more harm than good in regard to how they were getting energy.
“At the time, when we were looking at how much energy we were using, our energy bill was $2.5 million just for our electricity,” said Rose H. Forbes, the remediation program manager for the Air Force Civil Engineer Center. “It takes a lot of energy to move the water from an extraction well and put it back. We were evaluating not only the cost, but we were looking at where the power comes from.”
Most of the center’s electricity was coming from fossil fuel facilities, Ms. Forbes said, and was producing a lot of carbon dioxide emissions and inorganic compounds.
“We were putting more contamination into the air than what we were taking out of the groundwater,” Ms. Forbes said. “This is ridiculous. We should try to find a better way of doing business in a more sustainable way.”
The Air Force Civil Engineer Center, which is on Joint Base Cape Cod, has been working since 1993 as part of its Installation Restoration Program to treat groundwater on the Upper Cape. The center, since its inception, cleans more than 10 million gallons of groundwater per day, extracting the water, treating it in its water treatment facilities, and then injecting it back into the ground.
The center decided to invest in a cleaner energy source. They considered using solar, but solar panels took up too much space, she said.
Starting a decade ago, the center installed three 1.5-megawatt wind turbines: one in 2009 and the others in 2011. Since then, the three wind turbines, which cost $14 million to install, have returned $11 million.
“They have been paying the entire cost of electricity” at the center’s facilities, said Douglas C. Karson, the Air Force community involvement leader. “We’re basically not paying for electricity.”
Using wind power was a sort of novel idea in 2009, Ms. Forbes said.
With funds from the Defense Environmental Restoration Account, they installed one wind turbine in 2009 from a German company called Fuhrlander and two more turbines from General Electric in 2011.
The turbines have a lifespan of between 20 and 25 years, Mr. Karson said.
The two General Electric turbines are almost paid for, Ms. Forbes said. The Fuhrlander is less efficient, she said, as the company which made it has gone out of business and the turbine needs maintenance often. The Air Force is working with General Electric to fix the Fuhrlander, and the process is lengthy.
The Fuhrlander turbine could become more effective soon, however. It will be part of the first microgrid project that uses a wind turbine, Ms. Forbes said. When the project was announced a few years ago, she said, it was the first of its kind in the world.
One drawback of wind and solar energy is their “intermittent” characteristic, Ms. Forbes said. Wind turbines only work when it is windy, and solar panels generate far less energy when it is not sunny.
But this can change when batteries are used to store the energy.
The microgrid will comprise energy storage batteries, and the power can be used when it is needed. The 102nd Intelligence Wing is the project proponent. The microgrid will allow it to run “mission critical buildings” if there is a power outage on the main grid.
“It’s getting rid of that intermittent factor of renewable energy,” Ms. Forbes said. “You take that intermittent feature out of the equation, you have that consistent energy supply.”
James K. Redmond, a contract operator for the Air Force Civil Engineer Center whose job is to maintain and repair the turbines, said the wind turbines will be used to recharge the batteries, which the military can use if the power goes out.
Currently, the energy that is produced from the wind turbines goes to the Eversource grid, Mr. Redmond said. The energy comes down the turbine and into the nearby power lines.
“Power comes out of the turbine, up into the wires, and goes out into the grid. It goes out to the community,” Mr. Redmond said. “Everybody uses our electrons coming out of the turbine, and then the Air Force gets their credit for the power that they’re producing.”
The Green Communities Act’s virtual net-metering program provides credit to organizations that use renewable energy. Ms. Forbes said they receive about $500,000 per turbine per year.
“It saves taxpayer dollars. It’s better for the environment, helps reduce C02 going into the air. If there are more renewable energy installations combined, you could reduce the effects of global warming. That’s pretty important,” Ms. Forbes said.
Despite Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s success with wind turbines, the use of wind energy continues to be low in Massachusetts. Wind energy makes up .85 percent of the electric grid mix in Massachusetts, with solar energy making up 4.62 percent and natural gas making up 67.21 percent, according to WINDExchange US Department of Energy.
People driving by who see the turbines when they are operating might doubt the efficiency of the turbines, Ms. Forbes said.
Sometimes the wind turbines are not operating because of monthly maintenance. The turbines also turn off during specific times to ensure they are not causing harm to endangered species.
For instance, the turbines are shut down during summer months 30 minutes before sunset until 30 minutes after sunrise in an effort to not hurt the northern long-eared bat, Ms. Forbes said.
Ms. Forbes hopes that more organizations start to utilize wind energy.
“I think there’s a lot of stigma associated with wind energy, at least with large turbines,” Ms. Forbes said.
Wind turbines are not as hidden as solar panels, and some people hold the “not in my back yard” view. But Ms. Forbes thinks wind energy is more efficient.
“It’s a balance,” Ms. Forbes said. “I think all forms of energy are going to need to be considered when we look at climate change and global warming.”