The Cape has plenty of wind, and at least nine of the peninsula’s 15 towns want to take advantage of the natural resource with their own wind turbines.
But the wheels of progress are turning slowly. Although the state-financed Massachusetts Technology Collaborative has awarded a total of $711,000 in exploratory funds to those towns since 2002, not a single town has erected a turbine.
“Massachusetts – and New England in general – has been a very difficult place to site wind turbines,” said Greg Watson, a former vice president of sustainable energy with the collaborative who now works in the state’s renewable energy program.
For municipalities, wind power is a way to either cut hundreds of thousands of dollars in electric utility costs, or to make money by generating power and selling it to utility companies.
The economic incentives are especially important as Cape towns approach build-out and property taxes – the main revenue source in most towns – no longer grow at the rate of town budgets.
Cape towns aren’t alone in their turbine frustration. Of the 46 municipalities statewide working with the collaborative, none has a turbine yet.
Extensive testing and permitting requirements, financial uncertainty, lack of available land, and protests by abutters, make construction of wind turbines a riskier business in New England than in other areas of the country. Collaborative officials recently estimated that it is taking five to eight years to get through the permitting process required to build a turbine in Massachusetts.
“This elephant moves slowly,” said Brewster Assistant Town Administrator Jillian Douglass. She estimated her town may spend a decade in planning and permitting before their two proposed wind turbines are running.
Other than relatively small turbines at private homes, schools and businesses, only a handful of turbines have been built so far in the state, including a 100-kilowatt turbine at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers off Route 3 in Boston, two 660-kilowatt turbines in Hull and a 660-kilowatt turbine at the Massachusetts Martime Academy in Buzzards Bay. The Boston and Buzzards Bay turbines received funding from the collaborative and faced few objections from neighbors. Neither had to pass muster with voters. The academy’s turbine took only two years to erect from planning to actually generating electricity.
Michael Gross, director of communications at Cape Cod Community College, said a 660-kilowatt turbine is scheduled to be erected at the school next month. It has taken the college about three years to get this far from the time the school received its first collaborative grant money.
Orleans, the first town to enter into the collaborative’s wind program, is four years into the process but could possibly see its two turbines installed this fall. “It’s been a very long process of planning, feasibility and wind studies,” said Kevin Galligan, the former chairman of Orleans’ wind energy committee.
Orleans is typical of many municipal wind power projects. It took 55 committee meetings and three town meeting votes over three years to see the project through to its final phase. The town examined six sites and spent a year testing wind currents at one location.
The proposed site in the town’s municipal drinking watershed area raised concerns.
“We’ve taken great care to assess and minimize environmental impact on watershed. This is our drinking water,” Galligan said.
Typical of the problems experienced by municipalities, Orleans still has to wait for special state legislation allowing officials to enter into a long-term lease with the collaborative. The agency will act as a developer, paying for the turbines – currently estimated at $7 million for two – then managing them.
That’s because not all the benefits of turbines currently are available to most towns.
Private developers cannot only sell power to utilities, but are subsidized by both the state and federal government for producing the power. Municipal light and power companies are also allowed to do this.
But just 40 of 350 Massachusetts towns are served by municipal power companies, and no new ones have been created since 1926. Private, investor-owned power companies have fought legislative attempts to form new ones, said John MacLeod, manager of the Hull Municipal Light Plant.
Hull’s two turbines supply 13 percent of the electricity used by the town’s 12,000 residents and town facilities. The town also receives hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in tax credits and other incentives for producing green power. Orleans settled on a lease arrangement that would pay the town $64,000 in the first year, increasing by approximately 7 percent each year. The town also will receive 340,000 kilowatts in free and low-cost power for its water treatment plant.
Galligan said town officials actually preferred the lease option so they could leave power generation to the experts.
There are two bills in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and one in the Senate asking that towns be allowed to sell excess power back to utilities. And in Washington, U.S. Rep. John Olver, D-Mass., is spearheading an effort to create more municipal light and power companies.
Land issues have also delayed Cape projects. Siting a turbine that might be 400 feet tall and require a 1,200-foot cleared diameter is not easy.
With little to buffer wind turbines from neighboring properties, some towns, such as Eastham, have had projects stall when abutters protested noise, aesthetics or the effect on property values.
Other problems crop up in the most unexpected places. Cape Cod Community College officials were stymied when the Federal Aviation Administration said a preferred location compromised air space used by planes doing an emergency circle around Barnstable Municipal Airport.
Cape towns aren’t the only customers for new turbines.
Worldwide, demand for turbines is increasing by 30 percent each year, according to a March 2007 article in the Economist. Both Falmouth and Orleans are vying for two turbines that the collaborative purchased and has stored in a Texas warehouse.
“We hear, from GE and others, that there won’t be a turbine available until after 2008,” Greg Watson said.
“From our perspective, these wind projects are moving too slowly, compared to the urgency of the need,” said Sue Reid, staff attorney and director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Clean Energy and Climate Initiative. Reid believes municipalities and private developers need the state to play a greater role and make the process orderly.
“Anything we can do to make it more predictable is a good thing,” said John Rogers, a senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Both Reid and Rogers believe that once one town has turbines up and running, residents of other towns will see the benefits and the process will get easier.
“To know them, is to love them,” Rogers said.
By Doug Fraser
29 April 2007
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