BRIMFIELD – A proposed wind farm for West Mountain has generated a lot of heat from supporters and opponents alike, but the developers of the project say it will be close to a year before they know if the mountain has sufficient wind to make the plan viable.
Even if studies determine the site is suitable for between eight and 10 large wind turbines, it will be at least 18 months before any construction begins – and that will come only after the wind project successfully circulates though numerous local and state boards and agencies, said First Wind spokesman Matthew Kearns.
Kearns, the vice president for business development for the Boston-based company’s eastern division, said the goal is to begin construction in 2012.
He said it will take a year to gather the necessary data to determine if West Mountain has enough regular wind currents to make it worthwhile to install wind turbines.
“We’ve got to know if it has wind. It takes a ton of analysis,” he said.
In the meantime, First Wind is in an awkward position of not being able to supply basic information about the scope of the project, he said.
This was in evidence at a crowded public forum Monday when a representative of the company was unable to say how many turbines would be needed, where they would be located and how high they would rise above West Mountain.
Rob Mahlert, a Brimfield resident and a member of the group opposed to the project called “No Brimfield Wind,” said he left the meeting with no new information but a lot more questions.
“They say they are trying to help the community understand what the project is about for Brimfield (but) the reoccurring theme seems to be ‘We can’t tell you anything because we don’t know all the data,’” Mahlert said. He said he is incredulous. “You’re proposing such a huge project worth millions, (but) you don’t do the research?”
Kearns said they are doing research and it is ongoing.
In the spring, First Wind erected a 160-foot tall meteorological tower on the mountain that will measure the wind for the next year. After that, the data will be studied, and that analysis will be used to fill in some of the blanks that are currently in the proposal, such as the number of turbines and their height, Kearns said.
In addition to studying the wind, the ground will have to be surveyed for wetland issues, and there will be another study of the impact on the bird and bat population.
In order for the site to be suitable, West Mountain has to have a year-round average wind speed of about 6 meters per second, or 13 mph, he said.
Also major considerations are topography and accessibility, and the proximity of electrical transmission lines.
Although the turbines are typically placed in rural and even remote locations, the turbines are sophisticated machinery in need of constant upkeep and repairs. That means access roads for trucks.
Kearns said West Mountain had been used for logging, so there are existing roads to the mountain that could be used during construction and upkeep.
“We try to pick places that have been used previously,” he said.
Although the size of the turbines has not been finalized, it is safe to assume they will rise several hundred feet above the highest point on the mountain.
At the forum Monday, First Wind official David Velez said, “Why do they have to be so high? Because that’s where the wind is.”
Another First Wind-owned facility that has been compared to the Brimfield proposal is a 38-turbine farm in Northern Maine called Stetson Wind I. The turbines sit on towers that are 262 feet high and blades with a diameter of 253 feet. From the ground to the tip of a blade at its highest point, the entire structure is 389 feet tall.
In comparison, the windmill on Mount Tom that can be seen for miles is just 80-feet tall.
According to the state Department of Energy Resources, projects should be located at least 1,000 feet from any residences to minimize noise impact, and 3 to 5 miles from the nearest airport.
The company says depending on the number of turbines, the site could generate between 20 and 25 megawatts, which would be enough to power 10,000 homes. Brimfield would benefit through an increase in local jobs and as much as $170,000 in annual payments in lieu of taxes to the town.
Mahlert said that depending on where First Wind places the turbines, his house could be less than a half mile away and he has concerns about the noise levels.
He said he has seen studies showing similar projects caused a 25 to 40 percent loss in adjacent property values.
He is also concerned about the visual impact of 400-foot towers rising above West Mountain, and whether it will require altering the face of a portion of the mountain know as Steerage Rock.
“This would destroy the natural beauty of West Mountain,” he said.
Steerage Rock is used as the image on the Brimfield town seal. Mahlert wondered if turbines will need to be drawn onto the town seal if the project goes through.
Kearns said First Wind is not likely to approach the town in earnest about permitting until the spring, he said.
For the project to go forward, the town needs a new ordinance to allow wind towers. There is a set process according to law that will require the Board of Selectmen to conduct public hearings.
In the meantime, the company has been conducting what Kearns called voluntary forums with residents to inform them as much as they can about the project. The next one is planned for Sept. 21 to discuss the environmental impact.
“The meetings can be a double-edged sword,” he said. “Folks have lots and lots of questions and we don’t have all the information yet.”
Kearns said everyone can agree that there is increasing demand for energy. “The question is how are we going to meet it? Through coal, oil, nuclear, hydroelectric or wind?” he said. “Every one of those has consequences. We think wind is a good choice.”
Mahlert said people seem quick to say opponents of the project are opposed to green energy. “That is not true; we are opposed to this project.”