Following legal and regulatory battles that spanned a decade, a Massachusetts project to erect wind turbines on Brodie Mountain in the Berkshires finally started construction in 2009.
With all the necessary permits in hand for the project, and with an access road built to the site, the developer was able to put up four complete turbines and three partial turbines.
“We were humming right along,” said David Tuohey, spokesman for developer Berkshire Wind Power Cooperative Corp., a coalition of municipal utilities working to build the turbines in the town of Hancock.
It all came to a halt that September.
That’s when a Massachusetts Land Court judge handed down an order to stop the work in response to a lawsuit by a condominium developer that wanted to build a project nearby. The suit, over the special permit for the access road, had been filed prior to the start of construction on the turbines. But it ended up disrupting the project mid-construction because Massachusetts lacks a law that standardizes regulation of wind power siting, wind advocates say.
“Projects can go through the process of being evaluated, getting permits, going through much of construction and investment and then be halted,” said Peter Rothstein, president of the New England Clean Energy Council. “That’s incredibly worrisome. It’s a significant drag on this sector.”
Rothstein and other advocates say the case underscores the need for the Massachusetts Legislature to pass the Wind Energy Siting Reform Act, following the example of Maine lawmakers, who passed a wind-siting law in 2008. Though the Massachusetts bill won approval by both the state House and Senate this year, it didn’t get the final vote needed for passage during the formal legislative session in July and now faces an uncertain future.
Opponents – including Republican lawmakers, who’ve blocked the bill’s passage during informal session – say the new rules would take too much control away from local authorities. Advocates contend it would still provide for local officials to perform a full review and would only serve to ensure that wind developers have some certainty about what to expect from the process. If the bill fails to win approval by the end of the year during the Massachusetts Legislature’s informal session, it would need to be re-filed next year – with the approval process started from scratch.
Shift in priorities?
Berkshire Wind is a study in the potential difficulties of developing land-based wind in Massachusetts under the current rules, according to wind advocates. The project dates back to 1998, when a Colorado wind power firm, Distributed Generation Systems Inc., was lured to Massachusetts by new policies promoting renewable energy. The company set up Berkshire Wind Power LLC to develop the project, which originally involved plans to erect dozens of turbines. Opposition from local residents and officials forced the project to be scaled down, and ultimately a lawsuit by a condo developer, Texas-based Silverleaf Resorts Inc., would lead Distributed Generation to sell the project after investing $6 million in it.
The buyer, Berkshire Wind Power Cooperative, represented 14 members of the nonprofit Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co.
The municipal utilities had originally planned only to buy the power, but ultimately it seemed “more economical” to just develop the project outright, said Brad White, president of Berkshire Wind Power Cooperative and manager of the West Boylston Municipal Light Plant.
The Land Court decision may have been cause for second thoughts about that. Yet following a year of negotiations with Silverleaf Resorts, the lawsuit was settled in September and work allowed to resume, after the project location for three of the turbines was changed to be less visible from the condos.
Work restarted in October, and now the 15-megawatt, $46 million project is expected to finish by early spring, White said.
When it comes to offshore sources of wind power, such as the proposed Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound, the legal and regulatory battles are proving to be even fiercer.
One area of the regulatory process that hasn’t gotten as much attention, however, is the lengthy process required to sign a lease with federal authorities for developing offshore areas. While Cape Wind just signed its lease with the U.S. Department of the Interior in October, going through the review process for a new project is expected to take seven years, said Ian Bowles, secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
Bowles said he and officials from other East Coast states – including Rhode Island, which has an offshore project, and Maine, which would like one – have been pressing federal officials about the issue.
“We’ve been working hard with them, giving them the feedback that seven years is not workable,” Bowles said. “(The federal authorities) need to get it down.”
In Rhode Island, the 28.8-megawatt Block Island Wind Farm being developed by Deepwater Wind could go online within a few years, while the Maine state government has put a target goal of harnessing 5 gigawatts of power from wind generated off Maine’s coasts by 2030.
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