Wednesday’s meeting of Vineyard Power, a fledgling cooperative formed just last year to chart a stable energy future for the Island, took place just hours after U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar gave final approval of Cape Wind.
Leaders of the group unveiled preliminary plans for a Vineyard-owned wind farm.
The plan calls for building 17 wind turbines between three and 15 miles off the Island’s south shore, with a goal of making the Island energy-independent within five years. Achieving the vision will come at a steep cost; the project is estimated between $217 and $267 million.
The current plan is to fund the project through a combination of membership dues, $85 million from a USDA Rural Utilities Service loan, $60 million from private equity investors attracted by tax credits, and $35 million from the sale of renewable energy credits. Vineyard Power will still need to raise about $17 million for predevelopment financing for leasing, permitting, environmental studies and wind monitoring.
Formed less than eight months ago, Vineyard Power was developed by the Vineyard Energy Project to achieve the energy goals outlined in the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s Island Plan.
In a short period of time the group has brought a utopian vision of energy independence into sharp focus. The meeting on Wednesday at the Katharine Cornell Theatre was the second for this group which has grown in scope and membership.
Acting president Richard Andre announced that Vineyard Power now has 725 members, almost double the number since February, and plans are in the works to appoint an advisory committee to assist the cooperative board of directors. Mr. Andre said the group’s central goal is choosing a site for the new wind farm, a process that will include surveys, discussion forums and written comments.
Unlike the siting process for Cape Wind and the state Oceans Management Plan, which targeted two areas in state waters for the development of commercial wind power – one off Cuttyhunk and the other off Noman’s Land – Vineyard Power aims to choose a site by including all Vineyard residents in the process, Mr. Andre explained.
“We have developed a process that involves the cooperative members and the wider community to choose the wind turbine site,” he said. “If we were just a developer, we might just be looking at the economics involved, driven by wind speeds, depth of the water and distance from shore. But since we’re not just looking through financial eyes, but rather the eyes of the community, we want to dive deep into community values.”
Tyler Studds, who is working with Vineyard Power after receiving funding through the Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellowship last year, outlined the goals of the wind siting selection process. “Everybody here likely represents a wide range of opinions, preferences and even knowledge about the subject we are talking about,” he said, adding:
“Regardless of where we fall on that spectrum, we all begin at the same place, which is to ask questions about what makes a suitable location for an offshore wind site. The process begins here today and is intended to bring all of us to a point where we reach some form of agreement about one site, or a number of sites, and proceed from there.”
Mr. Studds unveiled preliminary results of a recent survey sponsored by Vineyard Power, that will continue through next month, on where the new wind farm might be located. He showed a map of waters south of the Vineyard and Nantucket, divided into a grid system made up of blocks approximately nine square miles each.
He showed where people would most prefer to have the wind farm located based on a number of factors. Each block was rated based on its use for commercial fishing, recreational fishing, cost effectiveness for building turbines, impact on wildlife and views. The most suitable sites were about three miles south of the Vineyard; the areas closest to the Island were found to be unsuitable.
Mr. Studds said the maps are still in the early stages. “It’s important to remember this isn’t the answer to the question of where [the wind farm will be located], this merely gives us answers to what is and what isn’t suitable,” he said.
Paul Pimentel, acting chairman for Vineyard Power, said of 290 survey respondents, 89 per cent said impact on wildlife was important when determining a site; 84 per cent said the cost of development was an important factor, and 80 per cent cited the impact on commercial fishing.
He said 55 per cent of respondents said impact on recreational fishing was important, and 48 per cent said visual impact was important. “It’s very interesting that cost came out so high and visual impact did not come out as high. I have to say I didn’t expect that,” he said.
Also in the survey, 28 per per cent of respondents said they would pay more to locate the wind farm farther out to sea. “I find that remarkable, indicating a high level of acceptance with the way turbines look, even among the early members,” Mr. Pimentel said.
He showed a map displaying three different sites for the proposed wind farm: one about three miles south of Noman’s Land, another about eight miles south of Chappaquiddick, and another about 15 miles south, between the Vineyard and Nantucket.
The first site would require 29 miles of underwater cable, running along the east side of the Island up to Falmouth, and is the only one of the three that could be built using traditional monopole wind turbines drilled into the ocean floor. The other two sites would connect to the mainland using an underwater cable running through the Elizabeth Islands to New Bedford; each would require a tripod structure with a crane vessel, a new design.
“That technology is available and is being used now,” Mr. Pimentel said. “But it’s certainly not routine.”
The site closest to the Island would cost $217 million, the second would cost $219 million and the third would cost $267 million. The figures include all capital costs and financing, as well as routine maintenance, Mr. Pimentel said.
He was surprised to learn that the wind farm located farther away from the Vineyard would cost only $2 million more than the one nine miles south of Chappy. “The reason is when we go out to outer sites, the wind speed increases, and it gets much more reliable. So the result – and I was not expecting this when I ran the models – was both [farther] sites optimize at 16 turbines instead of 17,” he said, adding:
“That’s an amazing outcome, implying that it doesn’t cost as much as you might think to get out farther.”
There were many questions from the audience, and Mr. Pimentel underscored that a final decision is still a good distance away. He said actual engineering probably won’t begin until 2013, and the goal over the next few years will be to find consensus on the best location for the wind farm.
He said there are a number of variables still to sort though, including the crucial question of funding, and whether Vineyard Power should focus its efforts on raising funds on the Vineyard or from investors off-Island. “If the members decide they don’t want to go off-Island for equity investors, that’s fine with me, but you would have to tell me what we will do for that money otherwise,” he said.
Some asked why the wind farm could not be connected directly to the Vineyard instead of the mainland. Mr. Pimentel said it would be nearly impossible.
“Our peak load in 2005 was 54 megawatts, but most of the time we are using much less than that – in the 20s, and at night it’s as low as five or six megawatts. If you bring power to the Vineyard you must be able to send the extra power back to the mainland, otherwise NSTAR would tell us no way,” he said, adding: “We cannot cut the cord entirely.”
One person questioned the wisdom of building a community wind farm.
“This is a wonderful thing that is going on here. But there are other developers. All this property is available for developers from all over the world to do the same thing we are planning here. And we don’t have any control over what they do. I would hate to say this is an exercise in futility here, but it kind of is,” the man said.
Mr. Pimentel disagreed.
“It’s not quite that bad. Because clearly the feds, and certainly the state, have established a process where there is a preference for community based wind turbines to have preference,” he said. “We have the community support, and that’s a big issue – just ask Cape Wind. So to say we would have no influence is not quite true.”
Another person asked why planners haven’t gone bigger, so the cooperative could sell surplus power for a profit.
“I think we decided as a group we don’t want to do anything except generate our own power,” Mr. Pimentel said. “I personally don’t want to become a utility.”
Kate Warner added another view. “This is huge amount of money for a Vineyard project. It will be the largest amount of money ever raised on Martha’s Vineyard, so we are already dreaming big . . . this dream is already huge,” she said.
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