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Letters to the Editor

On the mark

I enjoy reading every issue of Transformations, but this one [Summer 2005] was dynamite! It was even ahead of the stories on hurricanes Katrina and Rita, with headlines about gasoline prices going over the $5-per-gallon roof. The subject of sustainable and/or renewable energy is being discussed daily in our secondary school science classes. I plan to pass my copy on to my grandson, who just entered Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Mathematics in Fairfax County, Va.

Willard J. “Gadge” Adams ’47
Rockville, Md.

Wind cannot stand alone

Congratulations on addressing the important topic of sustainable energy. Even before the tragedy in Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico interrupted supply lines for oil, the need for a federal energy policy that recognizes renewable energy forms existed. However, in “Wind Power” [Summer 2005], Paul Gaynor ’87 states that wind “is the only part of the power industry that has any real growth potential for the coming decades.” This is inaccurate. In a recent column devoted to solar energy, the New York Times predicted a 35 percent yearly growth rate for the solar market. Few homeowners have the desire or ability to erect a 50-foot wind tower in their backyards, but they may install solar panels on their roofs. Likewise, wind technology does not just apply to automobile power, which accounts for more than half of fossil fuel use. Bio-diesel fuels and hydrogen cell technology will likely evolve to resolve some or all of that demand.

A universal source of clean power is, as yet, undiscovered. A portfolio approach that includes wind, solar, bio-diesel, hydrogen cells, and even nuclear power is more appropriate. In developing such a portfolio, alliances must be formed among the alternative energy stakeholders to influence public policy and minimize the power of large oil companies.

Our society and our political leaders must awaken to the reality that a balanced energy plan is the only means of succeeding in matching our growth and development aspirations with the fragility of our environment and the instability of world politics. When we acknowledge the role that wind, solar, hydrogen, and other energy sources play in satisfying our needs, we are in the best position to reduce our dependence on resource-depleting energy. When wind industries battle with solar, who wins? Oil.

Edwin Rule ’05 (M.S. MTI)
Reading, Mass.

Future projects lead to future technologies

Your summer issue of Transformationswas excellent. What was catching was the theme of writing about current choices and future technologies. What was more catching (and prideful) was that all the current choices you wrote about were done by WPI grads. It is the “future technologies” that interest me greatly.

To me, the WPI Plan with its interactive projects was the greatest step forward in education and for WPI. The proof of the pudding is that the program is getting stronger all the time. In this issue, I counted seven very different energy concepts. Knowing that at least a couple of them were literal takeoffs of interactive projects, my suspicion is that all of them were triggered from the experience of students, which, in turn, produced the creativity.

Otto Wahlrab ’54
Hilton Head, S.C.

Completing the record on sustainable energy

I commend you on the timely choice of focus in the Summer 2005 issue on sustainable energy and want to mention another energy source, water power, in which WPI has made contributions for more than a century, and continues to do so today.

George Ira Alden, one of the first five instructors at the Worcester County Free Institute of Industrial Science (now WPI), designed and manufactured the Alden Dynamometer, which was used extensively to measure the power output of hydraulic turbines at the turn of the last century. He was largely responsible for the establishment of WPI’s Alden Hydraulic Laboratory (1893) in Holden, Mass., and directed its operations, assisted by Charles M. Allen, Class of 1894. “C. M.” invented the salt velocity method of measuring penstock water flow rate, which, coupled with the power measurements of Alden’s dynamometer, enabled determination of turbine efficiency. Such measurements were critical to the satisfaction of contractual guarantees provided by manufacturers and to the improvement of performance through research and development. Leslie J. Hooper ’24, who succeeded Allen as director of the laboratory, conducted field trials using the salt velocity method at hydroelectric sites throughout the world. Both “Hoop” and Lawrence C. (Larry) Neale ’40, the next director, utilized model studies to help design and optimize a large number of hydroelectric installations and hydroelectric equipment. Recent work at the laboratory has resulted in the patented invention of a turbine that minimizes injury to aquatic life.

Traveling in New England, it is easy to see that the water power potential available at most old mill sites is unused. While it was once difficult to gain the rights to access sites for water power development and to sell electric power to utilities, it is now possible to do so. William K. Fay ’82 (M.S.) saw that the myriad abandoned mill sites provided opportunity for low-head hydroelectric generation. As a graduate student working at WPI’s Alden Research Laboratory, he conducted research to improve the performance of low-head turbines. He formed the French River Land Company to acquire rights, refurbish and improve generating equipment, and produce hydroelectric power. French River (www.frenchriverland.com) is a family-owned company—Bill’s daughter Celeste N. Fay ’07 serves as president, and his son William D. B. Fay ’09 is vice president. Altogether, Bill has consulted on more than 70 hydroelectric projects. French River itself has rehabilitated 16 hydroelectric sites, including Slater Mill in Pawtucket, R.I., and Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Mass. They presently operate five sites producing more than 1 megawatt of electric power and are in the process of planning for two more sites with an additional 1 megawatt of capacity.

Capturing the renewable energy supply in streams and rivers will surely become much more important as other energy sources become more costly. WPI can rightly claim both vision and action in developing hydropower today, as it did yesterday.

William W. Durgin
WPI Associate Provost and Vice President for Research