Harnessing The Wind -April/May 2012

by: Jason Graziadei

The island’s long legacy of using wind power stretches back nearly to the arrival of Europeans on Nantucket’s shores, when Tristram Coffin and Thomas Mayhew built their settlement near Capaum Harbor more than 350 years ago.

As today’s island residents grapple with a divisive proposal to erect a wind turbine at the Madaket landfill that would dwarf anything that came before, it’s worth a look back in history to acknowledge Nantucket’s heritage of harnessing wind power.

From the hills overlooking Nantucket Harbor to Surfside and Sconset, windmills have dotted the island’s landscape since the 1700s, when the early European settlers built them to grind corn.

The first windmill on Nantucket was believed to have been erected by Richard Macy, known in his day as the strongest man on the island and a master builder who was credited with constructing Straight Wharf and setting the foundation for what would become Nantucket’s commercial waterfront.

“As it became more and more obvious that there were not the waterways required to power a sufficient number of grist and fulling mills and that the one thing there was not a shortage of on Nantucket was wind (statistically, it is one of the windiest places on the East Coast), Macy recognized that what the island needed was a windmill,” island author and historian Nat Philbrick noted in his acclaimed history of Nantucket, “Away Offshore.” But Macy had never seen a windmill before and was prepared to hire a millwright from the mainland, according to his grandson’s account, when he “dreamed how to construct the building in every part” and completed what was Nantucket’s first wind-energy project.

There would be many more.

“When you look at people’s descriptions of coming to Nantucket in the 18th and 19th centuries, they obviously talk about the church steeples, but inevitably they mention the windmills,” Philbrick said. “They were very visible, and an absolutely integral part of the island’s visual identity.”

The wharves and docks along Nantucket Harbor were the hub of the island’s commercial activity, but the windmills, perched along the highest points overlooking the waterfront, became cultural gathering places where residents mingled to see what vessels were coming and going offshore.

“In a town where most of the economic activity was at sea,” Philbrick said, “the mills were an important island presence and more than just visually.”

The earliest photos and paintings of Nantucket, including Thomas Birch’s rendering of the harbor in 1810, depict a landscape in which windmills were prominent and abundant.

The archives of the Nantucket Historical Association are filled with evidence of early Nantucket’s myriad and ambitious efforts to harness the island’s wind-blown environment to their advantage.

Among the oldest and certainly the most revered is the iconic Old Mill on Prospect Hill, which still stands today and is toured by thousands of island visitors every year.

The Old Mill was built in 1746 by Nathan Wilbur, a Nantucket sailor who had traveled to Holland and returned with a windmill design based upon what he had seen across the Atlantic Ocean. Some accounts claim the Old Mill was built with timber from shipwrecks that littered the island’s shores. Wilbur, unfortunately, was not around to see its success. He was believed to have been robbed and murdered on Cape Cod shortly after its construction. The Old Mill, meanwhile, endured. It was sold, resold and operated over the years by prominent Nantucket families – the Swains, Gardners and Coffins – before being acquired by the NHA in the late 1800s.

Around the time of the Revolutionary War, the Old Mill was just one of several prominent windmills which existed along what was then known as the Popsquatchet Hills overlooking the harbor.

Perhaps the oldest was known as the Barna Bunker Mill, built in 1723, which met a spectacular demise in 1836 when the townspeople decided to blow it up in an experiment aimed at controlling fires downtown.

The so-called Round-Top Mill, built in 1802 and distinguished from the other windmills by its cone-shaped roof, was also known as “Joe Chase’s Mill.” It was taken down in 1873, but one of its millstones was used as the base for the Civil War monument on Main Street.

Others included the Spider Mill, built in 1759 at the Prospect Hill Cemetery, and the Red Mill, constructed in 1779.

The archives of the NHA show many more windmills of various sizes once existed around Nantucket, from one at the Point O’ Breakers hotel in Surfside, to another overlooking a formal garden on Pleasant Street, and others standing sentinel over Milestone Road, as well as a number along the eastern shoreline, including Sconset and Wauwinet.

“Wind turbines and windmills have a very long history on the island, at all periods they were fundamentally utilitarian devices whose design was determined by their function rather than by the prevailing aesthetic of the age,” said David Barham, chairman of the Historic District Commission.

And just as Nantucket’s forefathers erected a multitude of windmills around the island, recent generations have similarly attempted to harness the wind to their advantage.

A handful of new-era wind turbines were built around the island in the late 1970s and early 1980s as Nantucket residents responded to oil shortages and a burgeoning sense of environmental responsibility.

At Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm, Phil Bartlett oversaw the construction of 10 wind turbines which generated electricity that was sold to the now defunct Nantucket Electric Company. The 80-foot turbines lasted just five years due to unreliable technology, but others around the island took note.

On Vesper Lane, Eleanor MacVicar and her late husband, Alan “Red” MacVicar, installed a five-kilowatt Aerolite wind turbine in 1982 which operated for 10 years. Today, the turbine blades are gone, but the 80-foot tower still stands in MacVicar’s back yard off Vesper Lane.

MacVicar described the turbine as her husband’s “baby,” and said he purchased the unit for both environmental and economic considerations.

“People said ‘what are you doing?” MacVicar recalled. “My husband knew oil and gas aren’t going to be around forever, and he was very frugal. He didn’t believe we should waste these things. It was expensive but it was an investment, and he wanted to be on the front end of technology.

“For me, I could watch the one at Nantucket High School all day,” MacVicar said of the island’s most recent turbine, erected in 2010. “Wind is free.”

Other ventures around the same time included a Pinson wind turbine generator installed on a property off Hummock Pond Road by Nantucketer Mike Lamb, as well as Ernie Whelden’s turbine on Chicken Hill.

In the late 1990s, island resident Phil Marks submitted a citizen’s petition to Town Meeting seeking a lease at the Madaket landfill for five 500-kilowatt turbines. The proposal earned initial approval from voters, but residents of Madaket mobilized against the project, and defeated the petition when it came back to Town Meeting the following year.

“We have the best wind resources on the East Coast and we don’t use it,” Marks said recently in his office on Amelia Drive. “I think I feel a responsibility for switching on the light switch every day.”

The circumstances surrounding the defeat of Marks’ petition for the wind turbines at the landfill are playing out again today with the new turbine proposal for the property, which has been met with fierce and organized opposition from Madaket property owners.

“People told me I was just ahead of my time,” Marks said with a smile. “All the ideas I had then are coming to fruition today.”

The two latest chapters in Nantucket’s history of wind-power are rather contradictory in terms of their success and perception in the community. The installation of a 250-kilowatt, two-bladed Wind Energy Solutions turbine at Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm in 2009 was greeted with fanfare, but the project was plagued by problems almost immediately. Just nine months after its installation, one of the turbine blades broke off in moderate winds, landing about 175 feet away. No one was hurt in the incident, but Bartlett’s later sued the turbine manufacturer and spent nearly two years with an idle machine before it was recently repaired and brought back online. Some have cited the Bartlett experience as proof positive of the pitfalls of attempting to procure wind power on Nantucket.

Yet the 100-kilowatt Northern Power turbine installed at Nantucket High School has been a huge success. The project, funded largely by Wendy Schmidt’s family foundation and state grants, has saved the high school nearly $50,000 in electricity expenses, and provided students with a functioning example of renewable-energy development. While some neighbors have complained of shadow-flicker and health impacts, including headaches, accelerated heart rates and other symptoms, high-school facilities manager Dave Kanyock said the turbine has performed exceedingly well, and there have been none of the alleged impacts reported by students or teachers.

Meanwhile, the showdown over the proposed Madaket-landfill turbine has consumed the town over the past year and prompted an intense debate over the merits of the project.

The pros and cons of building a 324-foot turbine are very much on the table, yet the island’s long history of wind power is indisputable.

“No matter what you say about what should happen today,” Philbrick said, “it’s been a part of the island.” 

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