Whether it is the rezoning of the Transfer Station to allow for a municipal turbine or the Deepwater Wind project proposed for three miles southeast of the island, there is rarely a week where wind energy is not at the forefront of discussion on Block Island.
However, for an island with wind on the brain there are very few turbines currently spinning on Block Island. A half dozen residential Wind Energy Conversion Systems (WECS) make up the entirety of Block Island’s wind energy generation. They range in size from 1 kilowatt to 10 kilowatts and generate a total of approximately 50,000 kilowatt-hours per year.
Some, including members of the Island Energy Plan Committee, have cited the island’s strict zoning rules on WECS as the reason more systems have not been installed. Those rules currently require large setbacks from neighbors, which limits the number of properties that are appropriate for wind turbine installation. The zoning rules require that turbines between 3 and 10 kilowatts must at a minimum be 300 feet from the nearest property line. Systems between 1 and 3 kilowatts must be at least 225 feet from a property line. Turbines under 1kW can be installed less than 225 feet from a property line but have to meet other setback requirements from power lines and other utilities. Another limiting factor are the height restrictions on turbines, which keep them lower to the ground.
According to town GIS manager Martha Roldan, as the regulations currently stand there are potentially 327 properties, out of the 2,207 on Block Island, with the necessary space to erect a turbine with 3 kW or less generating capacity. Of those 327 only 151 could accommodate a 3 kW to 10 kW turbine. (The figures include conservation lands; the number of buildable lots that meet the requirements would be significantly lower.)
There are ways around these regulations, which would require permission from the neighboring property owners.
According to Electric Utility Task Group member Barbara MacMullan, the regulations were a result of a doomed turbine installed on Corn Neck Road near the transfer station road a decade ago. That turbine, a 10-kW system similar to the WECS MacMullan herself uses, was plagued with noise issues, lawsuits from neighbors and it eventually toppled over. In 2001, after that incident, the town adopted new rules regulating residential WECS. In the ensuing time only one turbine has been installed.
That turbine, a small 1-kW system, was erected by Bert King off Beacon Hill Road around three years ago. King’s home is not connected to the island’s electricity grid and utilizes solar panels to provide the majority of its electricity.
His 5.6-acre property had plenty of space to meet the current town restrictions; however, King said that he thought they were too strict and would keep residents from installing the renewable energy systems.
“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that there isn’t more wind generation on the island,” King said. “The logic of the thing is overwhelming considering [the island’s] location.”
King installed the system to supplement his solar generation during the night and says the systems have worked seamlessly together.
The majority of other WECS on the island were installed with the help of funding from the Department of Energy, which was studying wind generation in the 1990s. According to MacMullan the cost to install a residential turbine would have been prohibitive otherwise.
“It’s a pretty long payback,” MacMullan said. “You’d be looking at 12 to 15 years depending on oil prices, but it can make sense for new construction.”
She explained that by saving money on not running new electric transmission lines a new home could justify the cost of a residential turbine. She also said that due to the Block Island Power Company’s policy of not allowing net metering it takes much longer to recoup the cost of renewable systems on the island.
Currently the IEPC is finishing up its final draft of an energy component to the Comprehensive Plan. IEPC Chair Peter Baute said that while the group has not come up with specific suggestions he sees room for “liberalization” of the WECS zoning rules.
“Given the wind resources blowing past the island and the cost of energy there is definitely room for more generation,” Baute said. “We need to put some thought into sound levels and height and make some changes that the community can accept.”
MacMullan said that she thought the setback and height restrictions should be rolled back. She cited a 60-foot tower height as appropriate because higher turbines produce more energy and are generally less noisy at higher altitudes. She also said that the setback should be limited to the tower height saying that dangers – other than the tower itself falling – were limited. However, while she supports easing zoning restrictions on WECS, she ultimately thinks the town should be pursuing a larger goal.
“I think the question is whether we want to focus on these smaller WECS or go for larger systems,” MacMullan said. “The economics favor one or two bigger turbines, which would also benefit the entire community as opposed to 20 small turbines benefiting one family each.”
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