While America has the technical know-how to help meet its energy needs through wind power projects, deciding where to build them has turned local meeting halls into battlefields, say veterans of those disputes.
“As a society we know how to measure wind and we know how to build turbines, but we still don’t know how to discuss these projects efficiently and productively,’’ said Dave McGlinchey of the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, which is based in the Manomet section of Plymouth.
Best known for its efforts to protect bird populations and natural habitats, the center will host this month’s “Social Challenges of Wind Energy Conference,’’ designed to bring wind energy planners, promoters, and opponents together with the local officials called on to make decisions when the 300-foot gorilla of a wind power project comes to their town.
The decision-making process for discussing and permitting wind power projects is too often marred by inflamed passions, extremist positions, and dueling experts, McGlinchey said.
“The process is not working,’’ said McGlinchey, the head of Manomet’s energy and environment program. “There is no honest source of information. People head to the extremes. You lose civil discussion. Emotions are running so high.’’
Opponents’ concerns include appearance, noise, possible health effects, and environmental effects on birds and bats.
“On the other side, the proponents are just as heated,’’ McGlinchey said. “They believe we absolutely need to build them as quickly as possible.’’
The permitting and political process that has tied up Cape Wind, a massive offshore proposal for 130 wind turbines on Nantucket Sound, for nearly a decade is the best-known instance of wind power advocates and opponents battling over a project site, but similar issues afflict smaller projects as well.
A recent hearing in Wareham over a proposal to build an eight-turbine project on cranberry farm land “got confrontational so quickly, polarized so quickly,’’ McGlinchey said. “It’s a rare wind project that’s proposed these days that doesn’t generate emotional confrontation.’’
In Quincy, a proposal to build a 400-foot turbine won support from most of those who attended a public meeting in May, but was attacked by some neighbors who said it was too big. Fear that the tower’s height would shift Logan Airport flight paths to a nearby neighborhood also produced some raised voices.
And in Plymouth this summer, zoning board members faced what one member called “dueling experts’’ when a developer’s proposal to build five generators in South Plymouth drew opposition from those who said it would lower their property values. In a compromise, the board approved three.
But Manomet Center staff members believe officials should be able to make choices “based on objective science, instead of guessing which side is right,’’ McGlinchey said. While the center does not take a position on specific proposals, its position is that Americans should take responsibility for their energy use and consider the environment when making energy choices.
Jesse Gossett of Emergent Energy, a renewable energy consulting company, who will take part in the conference’s discussion on “New Ways to Talk About Wind,’’ agreed that a more sensible approach to siting and permitting is needed.
His company’s research shows that 95 percent of wind power proposals fail to win local permitting approval.
“There has to be a better way,’’ Gossett said.
Founders of a new Boston-based venture, Emergent Energy, plan to “reverse the order’’ of the typical proposal by researching sites and evaluating their pluses and minuses with local officials and residents before making a proposal, then shepherd the project through the permitting process. Only then will it seek to partner with a company who wants to build, own, and operate the project.
To be held Nov. 9 at Plymouth’s Radisson Hotel, the conference will also include panel discussions on “Lessons Learned From Cape Wind,’’ “Success Stories,’’ and “Concerns About Wind Power.’’
Suzanne Pude, director of the Island Institute’s Maine Coast community energy program, will share lessons from a wind turbine project in a coastal community north of Portland that succeeded despite neighbors’ worries about noise. Following an outreach effort that included public information sessions and discussions on reducing the noise concern, electric power customers in the Fox Islands were given a chance to vote on the proposal and supported it 382-5.
Pude attributed the project’s success to its community ownership. Project proponents need to communicate how they can be a benefit as well as addressing media accounts focused on the opposition, she said.
Locally, community ownership of wind power facilities underlies the widespread support for the town of Hull’s two wind power turbines, which provide low-cost energy for town facilities and residents. If you can show that a project will provide community benefit – giving energy for a school, town hall, or some local facility – people will listen, McGlinchey said.
Another conference participant, Selectman Mark Beaton of Kingston – where town government is backing a wind- and solar-energy project on town land – will talk about getting key enabling legislation through a town meeting.
“We’re going to have a collection of lessons learned to distribute to partners, a handy reference on what worked and what hasn’t worked,’’ McGlinchey said. A picture of what works is a “civil, productive, science-based’’ community discussion of the issues.
Municipal officials and others can sign up for the conference at www.manomet.org/windconference.
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