For Nantucketers, the answer is blowing in the wind. The question the islanders are asking is a familiar one: "What do we do about rising energy costs?"
The Department of Energy (DOE) has selected the windswept southeastern shoreline of this island -- along with 18 other sites across the nation -- as a possible location for the construction of an electricity-producing wind turbine (windmill).
For one year, an anemometer (wind gauge) will be placed atop a 100- to 150 -foot tower at each of the sites to measure wind characteristics for the area. The four test sites that show the greatest potential for wind energy utilization of the 18 will each receive a turbine.
The wind turbines themselves look like giant helicopter blades turned on their sides. The ones the DOE is experimenting with range in size from the Block Island, R.I., turbine, with a capacity of 20 kilowatts, to the much-publicized one-megawatt facility in Boone, N.C.
Nantucket is well-suited for such an energy alternative. Lying 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, the resort island is one of the windiest spots in the nation. But isolation is expensive. Nantuckers are buffeted by lofty utility rates, and the island's dimensions, 3 1/2 miles wide by 13 miles long, preclude a nuclear or hydroelectric power alternative.
One tale told here purports that Nantucket has always had something of an energy shortage. In its heyday as the world's foremost whaling port, the town refused to utilize whale oil lanterns to light the streets after dark. As frugal New Englanders, the town fathers wouldn't dream of squandering the whale oil to light local homes, even when market prices were low.
Today's residents hope the prudence of yesteryear won't be necessary, but they're not taking any chances. A grass-roots committee of concerned local citizens was the first to consider the windmill project. After two years of lobbying, the Nantucket Wind Energy Council convinced first the local utility, then the DOE that Nantucket was a viable site for the project.
At all 18 sites under consideration, the DOE will be working closely with the local utilities. Once testing with the anemometers is complete, the site choice made, and the turbine constructed, the DOE will operate the facility for one to two years. The wind turbine will then be turned over to the local power company. It is only at this point, several years down the road, that customers would begin to see a stabilization or decline in their monthly electric bills.
While commercial development of wind power on a small scale is booming, government-sponsored programs such as this DOE/NASA venture are proceeding more cautiously. The reasons are varied.
On the one hand, the nuts and bolts technology is available to construct a functional wind turbine.One the other, the cost-effectiveness of the big machines is marginal even where wind conditions are ideal. In addition, data on the long-term performance of the turbines simply is not available.
So wind-power advocates must patiently persevere. Government experts acknowledge wind power will always be a small percentage of the nation's energy output.
Besides Nantucket, communities chosen as wind-power test sites are: Big Sable Point, Mich.; Bridger Butte, Wyo.; Cape Blanco, Ore.; Diablo Dam, Wash.; Finley AFB, N.D.; Ft. Sill, Okla.; Ilio Point and Kahva Ranch, Hawaii; Lincoln Ridge and Stratton Mountain, Vt.; Livingston, Mont.; Meade, Kans.; Minot Radar, N.D.; Provincetown, Mass.; Romero Overlook, Calif.; Tucumcari, N.M.; and Wells, Nev.