Rough headwinds: Opposition to First Wind’s Brimfield plans shows why wind power goals will be hard to meet
“We really feel like we’re being invaded,” says Kathleen Garvey, standing inside the Western Massachusetts home she and her husband built two decades ago but now are thinking of selling.
Garvey, 55, lives in the rural bedroom community of Brimfield, but she’s not talking about the town’s popular antiques fair. Garvey lives in the shadow of West Mountain, where First Wind Holdings Inc. wants to erect up to 10 wind power turbines that would rise 400 feet high.
If that were to happen, Garvey believes, property values would plummet, quality of life would be compromised and the rural character of the town would be ruined.
Those are just a sampling of the fears shared by project opponents, who’ve mobilized to try to send First Wind packing. And they might get the chance to do just that; the project depends on a zoning change that only a vote by residents can enact.
Boston-based First Wind is promising the town up to $210,000 in annual revenue through the project, and executives with the company argue there’s still time to win support. But after a selectmen’s meeting on the project in September drew 200 unhappy residents – Brimfield has just 4,000 people – even supporters doubt First Wind will succeed.
“The passion was amazing,” said selectmen Chairman Thomas Marino, who is neutral on the project and wanted to accept $30,000 from First Wind to study it, until hearing from 50 opponents who spoke during the three-hour meeting. “The entire message was, ‘We don’t want your money, go home.’”
Brimfield is the latest case underscoring the steep hurdles to developing wind power in Massachusetts. The state has a strong tradition of home rule and one of the highest population densities in the nation. Residents are showing a willingness to fight wind developers almost anywhere they’d think of building – whether on land (consider the long-delayed wind farm in Florida/Monroe) or offshore (Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound).
Ultimately, the opponents are also clashing with Gov. Deval Patrick and his wind power aspirations. The governor has sought to put the state on track for getting 2,000 megawatts from wind by 2020, enough to power 800,000 homes. Two years after he set the goal, the state has added 25 megawatts from wind.
“There’s no question that it’s difficult” to develop wind power in Massachusetts, said Matt Kearns, First Wind’s vice president of Northeast business development. But Kearns said the state remains a welcoming place for wind developers thanks to its strong renewable power mandates. Utilities must buy 5 percent of their electricity from renewable sources this year, a figure set to rise 1 percent a year under state law.
First Wind is looking to Massachusetts for the first time with the Brimfield project after building wind farms in Maine, New York and Hawaii. The company’s resume didn’t inspire sufficient confidence from investors last month, though, when First Wind pulled its planned $240 million initial public offering.
First Wind operates its wind farms and earns revenue by selling the power and associated renewable energy credits to utilities. The company has accumulated losses of $233 million since its founding in 1995, and relies heavily on debt and government support to fund its projects, according to a regulatory filing.
First Wind reports 225 employees, 90 in Boston, and saw revenue of $88.1 million through Sept. 30.
Kearns said the 30-megawatt Brimfield project is still at an early stage and that “the conversation is just beginning between the town and the developer.”
But the dialogue seems to be over for members of the local opposition group, No Brimfield Wind, which formed after First Wind’s initial presentation to the town in June. “The more they try to reach out to the community, the more the community is repulsed by them,” said group organizer Sharon Palmer.
Along with bringing industrial development to a pristine mountaintop, opponents complain the turbines would create noise and visual impacts, such as a shadow “flicker” caused by spinning blades. First Wind says it hasn’t studied the issues yet, but pledged mitigation for any impact. Kearns said the company plans to seek the necessary zoning change in May.
Among the project’s supporters is Rick Phifer, 58, a lifetime resident of Brimfield. He expects he’d see the turbines from his house but doesn’t have a problem with the idea, saying the town needs the revenue.
Despite rumors to the contrary, the project wouldn’t get help from the state Wind Energy Siting Reform Act. The bill, currently stalled in the state Senate, wouldn’t allow state authorities to overrule local zoning rules, said state energy spokesman Lisa Capone.
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