Promise and Potential Pitfall of Mass. Wind Energy

By LESLIE FRIDAY/ecoRI News contributor

Massachusetts wants to lead the nation in clean-energy development. And why not? Harnessing wind and solar power would foster energy independence, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs and improve air quality in a state where asthma rates are among the highest nationwide.

That’s why Gov. Deval Patrick committed Massachusetts to the goal of installing 250 megawatts (MW) of solar energy by 2017 and 2,000 MW of wind energy by 2020. Homeowners, municipalities and their commercial partners accepted the solar-energy challenge and have already installed enough units to meet that first benchmark, which has since been upped to 400 MW, but they lag behind in the second. Only 103 MW of wind energy have been installed in the state so far.

So why has wind been such a hard sell, especially considering Massachusetts could generate more than three times the modest goal Patrick set, with the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs estimating the state’s total potential at 6,000 MW of offshore wind energy and 1,500 MW of onshore.

The answer has everything to do with that old real-estate refrain — “location, location, location” — and what you can’t sell in any market — trust.

Andy Brydges, senior director of renewable energy generation at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), said Patrick’s goal for wind energy always anticipated that 2,000 MW would come from offshore turbines, like the pending — and controversial — Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound just south of Cape Cod. Currently, no offshore wind farms are up and running. He also said the state’s 103 MW of land-based wind energy, anchored in 29 community and three commercial projects, means Massachusetts is 20 percent of the way to achieving its onshore goal.

Still, Brydges acknowledged that commercial wind developers have difficulty assembling large parcels of land for onshore wind farms in Massachusetts. And where wind is plentiful in the Berkshires and along the coast, communities might not be open to the turbines’ presence.

“Those communities are very densely populated,” he said, “but they’re also often retirement communities where people really look at the landscape and have a scenic value of it, rather than viewing it as a working landscape.”

That description fits coastal communities such as Hull, Gloucester and Falmouth. Each has erected wind turbines in recent years, and each has experienced widely divergent reactions to their presence, from being a point of civic pride to a point of contention.

America’s first wind farm
If offshore wind is Massachusetts’ holy grail in meeting its clean-energy goals, the successful installation of Cape Wind is essential. With an anticipated 130 turbines generating 468 MW at peak capacity, the project would become America’s first offshore wind farm, and the template for all future efforts. Although Cape Wind would only push the state one-quarter of the way toward its wind-energy goal, the project could easily supply up to 75 percent of the electricity demand for Cape Cod and the Islands on an average day, according to Mark Rodgers, communications director for Cape Wind.

But the turbines have other eco-friendly benefits. Rodgers said they would displace 770,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, which is like removing 165,000 cars from the road each year. They also would be a proactive means of combatting climate change in an area that’s slowly eroding with rising sea levels and violent storms.

Cape Cod “is really an area that has the most to lose in the entirety of New England from the energy status quo,” Rodgers said.

Those arguments hardly convince staunch Cape Wind opponents, namely a group called the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound — chaired by Bill Koch, who cofounded the oil refinery Koch Industries and has a home in Osterville just north of the project site. They say the wind farm will desecrate Wampanoag tribal lands, threaten marine and other wild life, and result in the decline of property values and a loss of tourism, employment and fisheries income.

Although the Alliance has appealed approvals and repeatedly pushed regulatory agencies to review the project since its launch in 2001, Cape Wind pushes on. National Grid and NStar have entered into agreements to buy nearly 80 percent of the power the wind farm will generate. Energy Management Inc., the project’s developer, continues to raise money for the turbines, which Rodgers expects will be built in 2014.

“We underwent one of the most comprehensive reviews of any energy project,” Rodgers said. “That just makes the decision in favor of Cape Wind very robust. It will be easier for future offshore wind projects.”

State officials are banking on it. Until that time, they turn their support to municipalities interested in installing wind turbines to offset energy costs and promote clean-energy development.

Iconic symbol or neighborhood menace?
In 2001, Hull became the first Massachusetts community to build a wind turbine. Town manager Phillip Lemnios said he was skeptical at first when a resident approached him touting the benefits of wind energy. After gathering information about the potential upsides and downsides of a turbine, he and his team presented the idea to the public in a series of meetings that featured photo simulations and discussions on potential sites.

One of the wind turbine’s biggest selling points was that the energy it produced would offset the town’s electricity costs. Hull, like several communities, owns and operates its own municipal lighting plant.

“We really want every kid in town to think that the street lights are being powered by the windmill,” Lemnios said. “We created a real sense of public benefit. Ultimately, we had very little opposition.”

A 600-kilowatt turbine was eventually built on public land at a coastal spot heavily visited by residents and tourists. Lemnios said the addition has become an iconic symbol and a point of civic pride. “It’s almost like a Stonehenge experience,” he said. “Kids go to the base of it and look straight up.”

Local reaction was so positive that Lemnios proposed installing a second, larger turbine at the opposite end of town, atop a capped landfill. Again, the project was vetted through a series of public hearings.

“If the public said they didn’t want it,” he remembers saying at the time, “we weren’t afraid to walk away from the project.”

But residents did, and in 2005, a 1.8-MW wind turbine went up. Both provide up to 14 percent of Hull’s energy demand, according to Lemnios, and have kept electricity rates stable for the past 12 years.

Gloucester is one of the most recent communities to benefit from the arrival of wind turbines. Varian Semiconductor Equipment Associates first sought, and then won, local approval for erecting a wind turbine at its property, which sits atop one of the city’s highest and windiest points. That got members of the city’s Clean Energy Commission thinking: why not follow suit?

Mayor Carolyn Kirk fielded the commission’s request, but decided it wasn’t in the city’s interests to own and operate a wind turbine. She favored entering into a 25-year power-purchase agreement with Equity Industrial Partners, which planned to build two turbines on its property near the Varian site, and pitched the idea to the larger community.

Residents attended public hearings to review the proposal, the neighborhood’s City Council member went door to door discussing the project with constituents, and the City Council passed a special permit giving the turbines the go ahead.

Under the agreement, Gloucester buys energy produced by the turbines and receives net-metering credits, which arrive in the form of a monthly check from National Grid. Kirk said the city takes in $20,000 to $30,000 monthly. Once the turbines reach maximum capacity this fall, that amount could reach $100,000. The mayor likes to tell residents that, “when they see the turbines spin, they’re printing money that the city of Gloucester is benefiting from.”

Meanwhile, Equity Industrial Partners has a stable energy customer, earns federal tax credits and banks renewable energy credits it can sell on the regional market.

Response from residents has been overwhelmingly positive. More than 2,000 people showed up for a signing ceremony, Kirk said, at which people wrote their names and comments about clean energy on the giant white blades before their installation in December.

While the turbines’ presence proves the city is passionate about pushing for clean energy, Kirks said she wouldn’t have supported the project had it not made financial sense. “We’re not in the business of making big political statements in that way,” the mayor said.

If Hull and Gloucester are models in how to approach wind turbine construction, Falmouth serves as a cautionary tale. The town’s two 400-foot-tall machines help power its wastewater treatment plant and originally were welcomed. But after they started spinning in spring 2010, some neighbors complained of headaches, vertigo and sleep interruption.

Town officials responded by shutting down the turbines on windy days, at night, and even considered buying out neighboring homeowners. But nothing has completely settled the issue. Residents became so adamant about the turbines’ disruption that the town held a vote in May to decide whether they should be taken down. Ultimately, the move was rejected, possibly because it would have cost each household $800 over 20 years.

Managing the windfall
Spurred by concerns from communities such as Falmouth, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Public Health gathered a panel of seven independent experts in 2011 to review whether there was any existing scientific evidence supporting the health impacts of wind turbines. The panel — whose members came from public health, epidemiology, sleep medicine and mechanical engineering — concluded that turbines may contribute to annoyance and sleep disruption, but can’t be definitively linked to any so-called “wind turbine syndrome.”

Panelists, however, did find an interesting correlation. “When communities have a vested interest in the development and the placement of a turbine, they seem to have fewer complaints,” said Wendy Heiger-Bernays, a Boston University associate professor of environmental health.

In Hull, Lemnios said he has fielded one complaint from a resident who experienced shadow flicker several days in March. The town’s solution was to buy him light-blocking shades and that ended the issue.

“It’s hard for people to recognize what the direct benefit is,” said Lemnios, adding that people don’t want to give up their view or have something of that scale in their backyard. That’s why he ensured Hull residents “understood the benefits and that they went to them.”

After some Gloucester residents complained of shadowing in their neighborhood, Kirk asked that the turbines be shut down for an hour each evening to solve the problem. She also asked Varian to pay for a digital cable plan for one neighbor whose antennae-powered television cut out with the passage of one turbine’s blades. (The companies obliged in both cases.)

Thorough education campaigns and proper siting are key to a wind turbine’s success, Kirk said, and “the communities that don’t do that, end up in trouble.”

State environmental officials have taken that lesson to heart. “There’s certainly evidence that some people have been annoyed by the wind turbine, shadow flicker or acoustics,” said Brydges of MassCEC. “What we’re working hardest on is developing methods to predict potential impacts and to manage them cooperatively with a community before the project gets built.”