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Rare chance to climb Gloucester wind turbine pays off

Sumul Shah of Solaya Energy secures his safety clips at the top of the wind turbine at Gloucester’s Blackburn Industrial Park.

Zack Wittman For The Boston Globe

Sumul Shah of Solaya Energy secures his safety clips at the top of the wind turbine at Gloucester’s Blackburn Industrial Park.

GLOUCESTER — The climb was arduous. The view was amazing.

Cars like ants on Route 128. Gloucester Harbor laid out below us as on a map. The Boston skyline. And the blue Atlantic stretching eastward until it disappeared in haze.

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We sat in the open air, 262 feet above Gloucester’s Blackburn Industrial Park, safety lines hooked onto wind turbine T1. Just in front of us, the giant rotor blades turned very slowly.

Safety lines, yes, but no railings. We had climbed through a hatch onto the flat top of the nacelle, the rectangular housing for the equipment that converts wind energy into electricity. It was like sitting on the narrow roof of a school bus 25 stories in the air.

“It certainly is not for the faint of heart,” Sumul Shah had said earlier. “It’s not an easy task climbing a ladder that high. But if you do, the rewards up top are certainly worth it.”

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Shah is chief executive of Stoneham-based Solaya Energy LLC, which built T1 and T2 in 2012 and helps operate them for Needham-based owner Equity Industrial Turbines LLC.

The occasion was the Mass Energy Consumers Alliance Gloucester wind turbine tour. More than 250 people turned up on the last Saturday in June to hear speakers talk about the nonprofit alliance’s green power programs and to step inside one of the two turbines. Before and after the public event, Equity officials and a handful of guests got to make the climb, with Shah as their host up top.

Mass Energy works to make energy both more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. One way is by signing up consumers who are willing to pay a few cents more per kilowatt hour on their electric bill for green power that doesn’t contribute to global warming.

“We’re telling people, ‘Pay extra for renewable energy.’ A lot of people want to know where the money’s going,” said Larry Chretien, executive director of Mass Energy parent group Energy Consumers Alliance of New England. “This is a chance to see it up close.

“We think it’s good marketing for us. Now they’re going to go home, they’re going to tell people they were at this event and they learned a lot,” Chretien said. “It helps inform people so they can be better citizens. . . . Now they may be more inclined to support legislators who are pro-renewable energy.”

Gloucester also supported the turbine project through a long-term contract with Equity that is expected to save the city $11 million in electricity costs over 25 years. The wind project should serve as an example of how the public and private sectors can work together to improve the environment and reduce our reliance on foreign oil, said Richard E. Kleiman, representative for Equity.

 The electricity generated by the turbines is no different than that from fossil fuels and simply flows into National Grid’s utility system. Mass Energy purchases “renewable energy certificates” from Equity for its members, while Gloucester pays for “net metering credits,” both financial methods of supporting the project and the shift away from fossil fuels.

Solaya has built or operated 22 wind turbines in New England over seven years; it currently operates five in Massachusetts, Shah said.

The day of the public tour was sunny and hot, and the crowd in the parking lot tended to cluster in the coolness of the turbine’s long, narrow shadow. “It’s a great day for solar power,” Chretien said, drawing laughs.

The three turbines at the industrial park can be seen for miles; the third is owned by Applied Materials Inc. The location has several advantages: It is a high point on Cape Ann, with an average wind speed of 15 miles per hour, and there are no homes in the immediate area. Elsewhere, neighbors sometimes complain of the whooshing sound and flickering shadows from running turbines.

T1’s base is concrete, five feet thick. The nacelle and equipment at the top weigh about 150,000 pounds, Shah said. It’s all built to withstand hurricane-force winds. The steel tower is about 13 feet in diameter at the base, narrowing to 7½ feet by the top. It’s largely empty, except for control equipment at the base, power cables, and a single ladder going up, up, up.

Each visitor must don a hard hat and a safety harness before stepping into the narrow space between the ladder and the curving wall. The harness clips on to a cable that runs the length of the ladder, with a brake that will automatically stop you should you fall.

Then you start to climb.

And climb. And climb.

Shah said the fastest climb was by a worker who reached the top in three minutes. Some people have taken as long as 45 minutes, he said, but 15 minutes is about normal.

It took this middle-aged reporter more than 20 minutes of steady climbing. Finally, I reached the top rung and the nacelle, which is cramped and sweltering. Two more ladders led to the roof hatch. Standing atop the ladder, I hooked up my safety lines and climbed out into the cool air and blue sky. It’s not a spot for those who fear heights. But being up there for 20 minutes was peaceful and awe-inspiring, surprisingly quiet. Shah chatted as calmly as if he was in his office.

The turbine generates electricity within a wind-speed range of 7 to 55 miles per hour, referred to as cut-in and cut-out speeds. Below cut-in, the wind isn’t fast enough, and cut-out is the point at which the wind becomes too fast to operate the turbine safely, Shah said.

The blades are highly aerodynamic and adjustable, working less like an old windmill and more like a modern aircraft wing. Shah had simply angled them out of the light wind so they barely moved.

The blades can be locked in a fixed position for maintenance, but that creates extra force on the turbine and can cause it to sway more. “Not the effect that I wanted when taking guests to the top of the turbine,” Shah explained after the topside tour. Um, thanks.

Finally it was time to climb down. You’d think that would be easier than the trip up. Not much.

Shah’s 11-year-old daughter, Alaya, made the climb earlier that day.

“The reason I entered into the wind energy industry is because of my daughter,” Shah said via e-mail. “When she was 5, she was deeply concerned that Santa’s house was going to melt into the ocean. . . . It is our responsibility to make the Earth a better place for our children.”

Alaya enjoyed the experience up top enough that she kept the hard hat and safety harness on through the entire MassEnergy program.

The views, she said, were amazing. She whipped out her phone to show pictures: “You can see Cape Cod!” she said. And we did.

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Some of the specifications of T1, one of three wind turbines at Gloucester’s Blackburn Industrial Park:

Hub height (center of the rotation of the rotor): 256 feet

Tower height: 250 feet

Top of nacelle: 262 feet

Rotor diameter: 295 feet

Tip height: 404 feet

Maximum power output: 2 megawatts

Cut-in wind speed: 7 m.p.h. (at hub height)

Cut-out wind speed: 55 m.p.h.

Source: Sumul Shah, Solaya Energy

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com
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