Last year could be considered a banner one for wind power in Massachusetts.
After a decade in the regulatory pipeline, the 130-turbine Cape Wind project received federal approval. And Gov. Deval Patrick’s re-election puts his goal of 2,000 megawatts of wind power by 2020 back on track.
But it was not so cheery a year for Cape wind power proponents, though the region’s substantial wind resources are considered key to the state’s goals.
Municipal wind turbine proposals in Harwich and Wellfleet were defeated by town votes. The Old King’s Highway Historic District Commission struck down a wind turbine at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable and a private turbine at Aquacultural Research Corp. in Dennis, though the latter project is under appeal. Most recently, the Cape Cod National Seashore withdrew its wind turbine proposal for Highland Arts Center in Truro. Add in earlier defeats of turbines in Eastham and Orleans, and the future of land-based wind turbines here doesn’t seem so rosy.
Last year, anti-wind forces became more organized, gaining political traction by questioning aesthetics and the health impacts of turbine noise and shadow flicker. They used the term “industrial wind power” to contrast turbines with the rural values they believe many Cape residents cherish.
Even the most adamant proponents for land-based wind turbines see an about-face.
“I’m not sure how realistic it is to see significant deployment on the Cape,” Charles McLaughlin, president of Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative, said.
The cooperative, established by the Cape Light Compact in 2006, hoped to fund a network of wind turbines in Cape towns to share the benefits and costs of wind power. But in three years, it has yet to erect a single turbine, and after losing money in Harwich, it is changing its financing rules for towns. Only Brewster, which proposes two large turbines on town-owned land with co-op money, has a project under consideration.
Now, the co-op is focused on what McLaughlin said is currently the largest solar power project in the East: 25 megawatts of photovoltaic cells to be located in town landfills.
‘Future will be easier’
Other wind power supporters take a more optimistic view. They say the process will be gradual as developers find acceptable sites and residents become accustomed to turbines. In Falmouth, there has been opposition, but a second large turbine is under construction at the town’s wastewater treatment facility. And four other proposals at both municipal and private sites are entering the permitting phase.
“I’m still hopeful we’ll get there, but it’s not going to happen overnight,” said Sue Reid, director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Massachusetts Clean Energy and Climate Initiative.
“We need to site them responsibly to build public support and minimize impacts,” she said.
Wind resource maps reveal large swaths of land on the Cape and Islands that are extremely good locations for turbines. Although state officials insist there are no definite numbers on how much wind power could be based on land or how much should come from any one region, it would be hard to ignore the potential of the Cape and Islands.
“It would be difficult to meet that goal if there was no future development on the Cape,” said Patrick Quinlan, associate director for the wind energy department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, referring to Patrick’s 2,000-megawatt benchmark.
“It’s not to say there aren’t windy spots elsewhere,” said Anthony Ellis, a senior research fellow at the University of Massachusetts Wind Energy Center in Amherst. He cited the state’s largest wind turbine installation to date: a 10-turbine, 15-megawatt project on top of Mount Brodie in the Berkshires.
“It’s unbelievably windy, but it’s just one hill. On the Cape, it’s 40 or 50 miles,” Ellis said.
“We’re on a good trajectory with the Cape and Islands,” Ian Bowles said late last month before ending his term as secretary of Energy and Environment. “The future will be easier than the past.”
Bowles said he believes Cape residents will adjust their thinking on the environment by considering the hidden costs of burning fossil fuels. The fish in many of the Cape’s otherwise pristine ponds, for instance, show high mercury levels. Scientists believe the mercury is carried here on the wind from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest and elsewhere.
Bowles’ successor, Richard Sullivan, echoed his optimism.
“The Cape had a single wind turbine in place when Governor Patrick took office in 2007. But, by the end of 2010, there were eight,” Sullivan wrote in an e-mail last week. “It is gratifying to see this region’s clean energy leadership and I look forward to working with Cape Codders to further develop their outstanding wind resources.”
Still, it’s looking more and more that widespread acceptance of wind turbines on the Cape and Islands will be problematic. In the towns where turbines have faltered, there has been no effort to revisit them.
“It took the wind out of everybody’s sails, and we have done nothing to generate any more momentum. There was only one location and we lost that,” said Barry Worth, the chairman of the Harwich alternative energy committee.
In Eastham, Orleans and Wellfleet, where projects all went down to defeat, the years it took to get multiple permits or to reach a pivotal vote or hearing, and the possibility of a court appeal of every decision, sapped the energy and optimism of advocates.
“The difficulty with Massachusetts is that people live everywhere. Someone is going to see that” wind turbine, said Quinlan of UMass. “People who work very hard all their life to buy a house on the Cape feel very wronged by seeing that property value erode versus people who would like to see a more sustainable energy picture.”
And if you are prohibited from placing wind turbines in the large open spaces such as the Cape Cod National Seashore, that means they will be concentrated in areas where people live, said Eric Bibler, who owns a second home in Wellfleet and helped spearhead the defeat of a wind turbine proposed for town-owned land overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
“You look at the rest of the land “» and there is enough houses that you can’t get far enough away from a turbine. … These industrial-scale wind turbines are incompatible with residences.”
Bibler and other critics claim the state wind power goals could translate into 100 or more large turbines on Cape. That would mean a significantly different view than today’s relatively uncluttered skyline, they said.
Local control at issue
Despite assurances given by state officials that towns will not have turbines forced on them – as they did cellular phone towers – anti-wind forces remain skeptical. They point to the wind turbine siting bylaw backed by Patrick as evidence that local powers will be circumvented.
But what they see as usurping local control, Bowles described as streamlining. The bylaw creates a single board in each town to decide upon wind power projects. That decision could be appealed in court only by the proponent, or to a state siting board by opponents. The current permitting process takes eight to 10 years; the state estimates the new law could cut that to nine to 18 months.
“There is no truth to the argument that it disrupts local control,” Bowles said.
That debate is moot for the moment, as the siting bylaw now needs to be resubmitted to be reconsidered during the Legislature’s new session.
Reid of the Conservation Law Foundation agreed with Bowles that Cape residents need to adjust their thinking.
And with the exception of the Massachusetts Military Reservation, land restrictions will keep wind farms with 10 or 20 turbines from the Cape, said Reid. The biggest megawatt production will come from the hills of western Massachusetts.
“We need wind and solar (power) everywhere it makes sense,” she said. “Cape Cod needs to play its part.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding