BREWSTER – After a decade of wrangling over wind turbines at sea (Cape Wind) the battles are about to spread over the land.
Wind projects and municipal turbine plans are proliferating, especially with a state government so disposed, and opposition, which was at first faint, is becoming louder. The Manomet Center For Conservation Sciences sponsored a forum at the Plymouth Radisson Tuesday morning that brought over a hundred local officials, wind developers, proponents and opponents together to debate the “Social Challenge of Wind Energy”.
One key theme was that developers, whether a town of private company, need to engage local residents much sooner.
“The developer picked the site (for Cape Wind), it was the best site from a technological perspective,” noted Chris Powicki of Cape and Islands Renewable Energy Collaborative. “But there was no stakeholder outreach or participation when choosing that site. If there had been the developer could have had potential allies and that would’ve helped.”
As it was, he recalled, opposition rallied and although permits are complete, court fights are just starting.
“Lacking allies and an aggressive communication strategy from the outset it took a long time to counterbalance that,” Powicki said.
Powicki lamented that the Massachusetts Oceans Act of 2008, which delineated state coastal waters suitable for wind development, basically repeated the failures.
“It did engage stakeholders to some extent but much of the process was conducted in Boston rather than the Cape and Islands. The end result was when the draft plan was released and the first maps targeted sites off the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard opposition was galvanized right away,” Powicki explained. “Developers cannot go at it alone. State agencies need to take a more aggressive role in outreach and education.”
Rather than just holding meetings and inviting abutters and residents Powicki suggested, “ go out and ask how they want to be engaged, incorporate them into the process.”
Massachusetts has a goal of reducing greenhouse gases by 80 percent by 2050 but Powicki said advocates should focus on the local benefits.
“A lot of local communities could become energy independent with just a few offshore turbines – then they could look towards electrifying the transportation and heating sections,” he said.
Suzanne Pude of the Island Institute helped Vinalhaven, Maine do just that. Electric cost on the islands in Maine are up to seven times the national average. On Vinalhaven they were 28 cents per kilowatt hour vs. a national average of 10. As a result that island and one other voted 382-5 to build a set of turbines. Power production is ahead of projections.
“Now they’ll be paying six cents per kilowatt hour for the next 20 years,” she said. “The lessons for mainland communities are the project must be sized to meet community needs, careful management of costs, co-location of costs and benefits and ongoing public engagement.”
Keeping the electricity local is key.
“The town bears the cost of development, permitting, looking at it, listening to it, maintaining it but those cost are ultimately balanced by the benefits,” Pude argued.
Falmouth successfully built a municipal turbine on 315 acres occupied by their waste-water treatment plant, the town’s largest consumer of electricity.
“We went to the town meeting seven times for this project,” Megan Amsler of the Falmouth Energy Committee recalled. “We needed to keep the tangible benefits in the local economy. Having an outside developer come in and sell to the town didn’t sing with people. We decided we wanted to own our own project.”
Despite extensive outreach and a large buffer, people have complained about noise. Eleanor Tillinghast of Green Berkshires said continued low frequency noise could lead to sleep deprivation for people living up to a mile and a quarter away.
“The inner ear does respond to infra-sound at levels not heard,” she added. “People living near the turbines are at risk of infra-sound effects on the body that nobody understands.”
These could include memory loss, dizziness, concentration problems, headaches, ringing in the ears and anger.
“When people promoting wind turbines tell you there are no noise issues or people are overly sensitive that’s simply not true,” Tillinghast said.
Former state Rep. Eric Turkington, who now advises Protect Our Islands Now for Tomorrow, noted the Oceans Act would allow an additional 150 turbines mostly off Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Turkington noted the Public Trust Doctrine, which dates from the 1600s, would’ve banned offshore wind development in state waters, so it was changed as part of the act.
“Politics drove this change. Not science,” he proclaimed. “(It was) a politically mandated outcome partially funded by groups with an interest in the outcome.”
Environmental concerns were ignored.
“Roseate, Arctic and least tern core habitat was identified nearby and when they take flight they’ll fly into the middle of the turbines,” Turkington said. “Federal fish and wildlife officials wrote a scathing letter saying they had to do a study before going any further. Did they do the study? No.”
“There have been deaths,” observed Trevor Lloyd-Evans of the Manomet Center. “In Altamont California thousands of birds were killed in one pass where there were too many windmills.”
Bats and birds both fly high enough to be impacted.
“With Cape Wind up to one quarter million longtail ducks fly close to the area. There is some debate if they fly through the area the turbines will be,” he noted.
On land they’ll alter the community character.
“These are huge industrial structures. We’re not talking about the windmills of Denmark where all the turbines are really small,” Tillinghast said. “They’re going to dominate the landscape.”
All of which means opposition will spring up to almost any project and proponents need to revise their game plans.