The Wind Wars have arrived in Connecticut, and the battles are being fought in pristine little towns like Prospect and Colebrook, before the General Assembly, and within the bureaucratic confines of a state panel with total control over the siting of energy facilities.
Advocates of wind power point out it’s a clean, renewable source of energy, an environmentally friendly way to cut our dependence on costly foreign oil and dirty coal-fired generating plants. They see the massive turbines as awesome and beautiful, and think the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of the blades is reminiscent of gentle waves on the shoreline.
With all that going for them, you might think Connecticut’s first-ever commercial wind turbine projects would be whirling toward completion amid widespread and enthusiastic applause.
And they would, except for the folks who don’t want these 400-foot-tall machines towering over their neighborhoods, who fear the sound of the giant turbines will drive them crazy at night, who are convinced their property values will go all to hell.
“They’re industrial, they don’t belong here,” insists Tim Reilly, a high school teacher who helped found the Save Prospect Corporation to block the wind turbines proposed for that Waterbury suburb. “They don’t belong in anybody’s backyard, they don’t belong in any neighborhood.”
Up in Colebrook, a rural Litchfield County town along the Massachusetts border, Stella Somers argues the turbines proposed for that community will “irreversibly damage” the luxury bed-and-breakfast business she and her husband have been working so hard to make a success.
Like Reilly, Somers says she’s “100 percent for green, renewable energy.” Also like Reilly, she believes Connecticut shouldn’t go forward with any commercial wind project until it has some kind of system to regulate where these kinds of power-generating facilities can go.
Greg Zupkus, one of the founders of the development company that wants to put up wind turbines in Prospect and Colebrook, says he has no problem with reasonable standards for wind power and believes most of the opposition to his projects is coming from a small group of people who simply need to be educated about this energy system.
“There isn’t as much opposition as it looks like,” says Zupkus, who is chief executive officer of BNE Energy Corp. of West Hartford.
Some of that opposition may have been ignited by what appeared to some to be the unexpected nature of these projects. Critics say they had very little warning the turbines were coming.
The state now has no standards governing the placing of commercial wind turbines, other than to require the Connecticut Siting Council to review and approve any wind turbines capable of churning out one megawatt or more of power.
The council was created in large part to circumvent exactly the kind of not-in-my-backyard opposition these wind turbine proposals are generating in Prospect and Colebrook. Lawmakers gave it complete authority over the siting of all kinds of new power-generating and telecommunications facilities in the state, reasoning that local bull-headedness shouldn’t block projects that are good for an entire region or the state as a whole.
All of which is fine, except legislators apparently never thought someone would want to put up wind turbines where it might bother their constituents.
State Rep. Vicki O. Nardello happens to live in Prospect. She also happens to be co-chair of the Legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, which last week decided to conduct a public hearing on a bill Nardello co-sponsored to require the siting council to adopt wind power regulations.
(It was no coincidence that Zupkus was working the halls of the legislative office building the same day Nardello’s committee was meeting. His company has a lot at stake: the eight turbines he wants to put up in Prospect and Colebrook have a total price tag of more than $31 million.)
“We thought wind projects would be on a ridge-line or offshore,” Nardello says. “Not in residential neighborhoods.” She says other states either have regulations or state laws to govern where wind power projects can go and where they can’t.
Requiring the siting council to adopt specific regulations about such issues as how close a commercial wind turbine could be to a residential neighborhood or a road would be a dramatic new step as far as the siting council is concerned. The panel’s executive director, Linda Roberts, says the council has regulations governing its administrative procedures for approving all energy and telecommunications projects, but there are no specific rules about setbacks or zoning or land-use issues.
There has been lots of bitching from locals over the years that the council is too pro-industry, that it approves something like 90 percent of all the energy and cell-tower projects that come before it, and that it can override all local opposition. The council’s defenders insist it does schedule public hearings and listens to all sides on controversial projects, and that it often requires developers to make changes in their plans to win council approval.
Hearings on the BNE projects have been scheduled for Feb. 22 and 23 in Prospect, and for March 22 and 23 in Colebrook.
No one is quite sure where this debate over wind power is headed, largely because it’s so new to Connecticut.
There have been ferocious fights over wind projects in places like Massachusetts, where residents of Nantucket and Cape Cod have been battling for years against the Cape Wind plan to erect 130 turbines offshore in Nantucket Sound. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave final approval for the project earlier this month, and the developers expect to begin construction by the end of 2011 and to start producing power by early 2013.
Wind projects have been in place for years in various other New England states, some generating applause from local residents and others criticism about noise pollution and ruining the landscape.
“Right now, we’re in a vacuum,” says Nardello. “We’ve never had wind projects in Connecticut.”
Not big ones, anyway.
There is, however, one smaller turbine built by a printing company near New Haven harbor that began spinning its blades on March 8, 2010. Phoenix Press is so proud of its green machine that it held a turbine-naming contest. Jessica D’Errico, of the Cold Spring School’s 4th/5th grade class won. The turbine is now officially “Gus(t).”
“We’re pretty happy with it,” Phoenix Press co-owner Brian Driscoll says of the turbine, which is expected to generate 100,000 kilowatts of power over a year’s time. Driscoll and his brother, Kevin, got a $263,000 state grant to help offset the $500,000 cost of the project.
The Driscolls had hoped to save about $35,000 a year in energy costs, but last year’s long, hot summer included a lot of windless days that reduced the amount of power produced. But Brian Driscoll says they have no regrets, and that they’ve turned their green power efforts into a serious advertising plus.
He also can’t understand why some people object to the way turbines look and sound. “To my way of thinking, there’s nothing ugly about them,” he says. “I think they’re majestic.”
All you environmental enthusiasts shouldn’t get too excited about the wind power prospects in this state, though.
“We’re not going to see massive wind farms in Connecticut or Long Island Sound,” says Glenn Weston-Murphy, an engineering designs adviser and lecturer at Yale University. “There are very few places in Connecticut that make sense for wind turbines.”
Weston-Murphy is also co-founder of the Connecticut Wind Working Group, which was set up in 2007 to promote a discussion about the benefits of wind power in this state.
Connecticut doesn’t have the kind of steady, powerful winds they have in places like Texas or Iowa, Weston-Murphy explains, nor do we have the uncongested open space that big wind farms require. (The Prospect proposal, for example, calls for putting up two 1.6-megawatt turbine towers on about 68 acres, while big wind farms are often located on hundreds of acres of land.) The best Connecticut spots are along ridges in the northwestern quarter of the state, and perhaps a few spots along the shoreline, according to federal wind maps.
Weston-Murphy believes opposition to wind power projects will ease in Connecticut once people see a few in operation and understand how beneficial they are to the environment and the economy. He also thinks that having some reasonable guidelines for wind projects would actually help the industry gain public support and help educate people.
“Having no guidelines makes it tough to get proposals off the ground,” he says. “Literally, it’s easier to put up a wind farm in Texas than to put up a meteorological tower [to measure things like wind speed at a location] in Connecticut, and that’s ridiculous.”
Federal officials have set the goal of producing 20 percent of U.S. energy needs through alternatives to fossil fuels by 2030. “I think it is doable, if we do it properly,” says Weston-Murphy.
BNE was founded four years ago by Zupkus, who has a background in engineering, and Paul Corey, a former chairman of the Connecticut Lottery Corporation who made headlines several years ago for giving ex-Gov. John G. Rowland a hot tub.
Zupkus is an enthusiastic wind salesman, explaining that the projects in Prospect and Colebrook would overnight become those small towns’ biggest taxpayers. He insists noise concerns are based on wind farms that used old technology, and says the turbines his company would put up are far quieter. He says the sound would be only “as loud as a refrigerator at the property border.”
Another economic argument BNE uses is the turbines for both projects would be made here in Connecticut by General Electric. “We felt it was important to use a Connecticut company,” he explains. Which may help explain the $1 million in state loans BNE would get for the projects.
All those environmental and economic arguments are putting lots of pressure on local activists like Prospect’s Tim Reilly. “It’s a real issue,” he says. “We’re put between a rock and a hard place. People say, ‘What, are you against green energy?’ Of course not.”
“The only problem is,” Reilly quickly adds, “Connecticut is not a wind state.”
Quite a few people would disagree, and they think those winds are blowing in their favor.
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