ORLEANS – A meeting between the board of selectmen and water commissioners Tuesday to discuss unresolved issues with a proposal to erect two wind turbines in the town’s watershed failed to convince enough members to reverse an earlier decision to kill the project.
The water commissioners voted 3-1 at a meeting Sept. 12 against recommending that a request for proposal be released soliciting potential developers to operate the turbines, which would have been used to help power the town’s water treatment facility. The water commissioners’ decision was supported by a unanimous vote of the board of selectmen.
Had the boards voted in favor of the project, the request for proposal would have gone out Sept. 17, which was the deadline set by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.
The nuts and bolts
The collaborative has been working with Orleans since 2003 to develop a wind turbine proposal for the watershed and has provided more than $800,000 in funding and technical assistance to Orleans including feasibility studies, environmental impact notification and bird studies, and legal, professional and engineering services. It also spent $5.3 million to purchase the two 397-foot turbines that could each generate 1.65 megawatts of electricity. An additional $3.75 million was committed by MTC to purchase renewable energy credits during the life of the project, according to MTC officials.
The water treatment plant would have received 170,000 kilowatt hours of electricity free. Additional electricity drawn by the plant would be purchased at 50 percent of the retail cost for electricity.
Besides the free and below-retail-rate energy costs provided to the water department, the town would have collected an annual rental fee of $64,000, adjusted every three years for inflation, from the developer.
The goal of Tuesday’s joint meeting was to try and answer questions raised by the water commissioners and selectmen about the wind turbine project.
The stumbling blocks
One of the chief concerns expressed by members of both boards was the town’s ability to fund and manage the long-term oversight of the wind energy production in the watershed as part of the 20-year lease to a third party developer.
Town Administrator John Kelly said it was difficult to estimate what kind of costs the town would incur during the long-term monitoring of the project, and funding would be needed for a project manager, engineering and legal consulting, financial auditing, and if needed, the hiring of additional town employees.
At the end of the meeting, selectmen chairman John Hinckley Jr. polled members of both boards asking if they would reconsider their votes.
“I agree this project is dead,” said Ann Hodgkinson, chairman of the water commissioners. She added that she still supported placing wind turbines in the watershed. All members present expressed their support to pursue wind energy for the town, but were divided on where the turbines should go.
Water commissioner Victor Noerdlinger and Selectwoman Margie Fulcher stated their objection to any wind turbines being placed in the watershed.
Voters at town meeting twice approved the location of the wind turbines in the watershed in 2005 and 2006. Voters at the 2004 town meeting approved the expenditure of $100,000 to support a wind energy project in the watershed.
Despite the negative vote Sept. 12, water commissioner Ken McKusick said at Tuesday’s meeting that MTC was still willing to assist Orleans with a wind energy project regardless of whether the two turbines purchased by the collaborative were used by the town or purchased separately by a developer.
However, several members of both boards expressed their displeasure with MTC and stated the collaborative should not be involved with any future Orleans wind energy project.
“I don’t want to go forward with anything involving MTC,” said water commissioner Robert Rich. “The weak link in this whole thing has been the unbusinesslike and unpredictable behavior of MTC.” After the meeting Rich said MTC would frequently make changes and set deadlines without discussions with the town.
Chris Kealey, MTC spokesman, said the allegations made against the collaborative are unwarranted.
“I think comments made by certain officials are uncalled for and unsupported by the facts,” said Kealey. “It seems that certain officials are trying to blame MTC for not going forward with the project.”
Kealey said the project has been delayed a number of times and the Sept. 17 deadline was set, after being extended, because MTC needed an answer from the town of Orleans, and other towns were interested in acquiring the two Vestas wind turbines. Kealey said the town would have had a better idea of costs if the request for proposal had gone out and a developer responded.
Kealey also addressed concerns that possible changes to a state building code could soon render the MTC turbines obsolete, because higher wind resistance levels might be required. MTC turbines conform to existing codes and can withstand wind gusts of up to 133 miles per hour, he said, adding there is no decision yet about whether any changes to the code would be implemented. If new codes did go into effect, he said, there would likely be a grandfathering, waiver or grace period to use the turbines already purchased.
Included in the vote at last week’s selectmen’s meeting for a roundtable discussion was the request that representatives from MTC should attend. None did, however, and McKusick said it was due to a scheduling conflict.
“The reality is we were not invited by the town,” said Kealey.
Diedre Matthews, Clean Energy program director for MTC, said McKusick told her that her presence was not needed.
When asked, McKusick said he did tell Matthews that she did not have to come to the meeting.
“The agenda that was handed out had nothing to do with MTC,” said McKusick, who said he discussed this decision with the chairman of the selectmen and water commissioners. However, the meeting agenda listed “Update on MTC” as the first item to be discussed.
After the discussions Tuesday failed to salvage the wind turbine project, selectmen voted to place on the agenda for the Wednesday, Oct. 3, meeting a discussion on how to proceed with wind energy. They stated their support for wind energy in town and the discussion would consider the possibility of other sites for wind turbines in town and the creation of wind energy committee.
Hinckley noted that the fundamentals were in place and a lot of the work done on the project with MTC over the past four years can still be used. There was agreement between both boards that due to the significant technical nature of a wind energy project, the town should consider allocating funds for outside consultants and a project manager.
Liz Argo, member of the recently formed Committee to Save Orleans Wind, said she was disappointed the commissioners did not reverse their decision, but appreciated the discussions detailing the concerns the town had with the proposal.
She said she hopes a consensus can be reached on how to go forward with a new wind energy project.
“Now there is a myriad of opinions and no leadership,” said Argo.
By Matthew Belson
The Cape Codder
1 October 2007
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