WESTPORT – The Westport Energy Committee held a public hearing on Nov. 21 to collect input from townspeople on the feasibility study for a potential municipal wind turbine on town land off Hix Bridge Road, and received plenty of input on the proposal— most of it negative.
The committee was presented with three petitions opposed to siting a commercial-sized turbine at the studied site, a parcel of town forest property behind Beech Grove Cemetery and the new fire station near Central Village. Many of those objecting to the location urged the committee to seek alternative sites for a municipal turbine project.
“The town is at the deciding point,” suggested town consultant Simon Thomas of Atlantic Design Engineering, the firm that conducted the feasibility study. The Energy Committee must now determine the proposal for a turbine “doesn’t make sense for Westport, and stop here, or it does make sense here, and proceed,” he told an audience of about 65 residents at the start of the hearing.
Thomas provided data showing winds from the southeast typically blew from 5.09 to 6.21 meters per second at the site, as well as visual simulations indicating what a turbine on towers from 50 to 78 meters would look like from various vantage points.
Balanced against the potential energy savings or revenues would be negative impacts such as increased noise or shadow/flicker effect, which he admitted could be “an annoyance” for some nearby residents. State of the art turbines have adjustable blade pitches to reduce noise levels, and programmable turbines which can be shut off periodically to eliminate most of the shadow/flicker impact.
Energy Committee Chairman Antone Vieira noted that while the feasibility study funded by a grant from the Mass. Clean Energy Center determined there are sufficient wind resources at the site to power a commercial turbine, there has been plenty of debate over whether Central Village is the right location for such a project.
“There’s healthy disagreement on where that (location) should be, and healthy disagreement on the size” among committee members and the public, he said.
Vieira noted that at the last few Energy Committee meetings, there has been “a lot of negative comments” on the proposal, with most of the opposition fearing adverse health and visual impacts on the neighborhood.
The chairman indicated the committee would vote within the next few weeks to recommend to the Board of Selectmen to either proceed with a planning phase or to abandon the idea of using that location.
Rev. Leonard Hindsley of St. John the Baptist Church at 945 Main Road presented a petition from 155 parishioners urging the committee to look elsewhere for a suitable turbine site. “They’re not against wind technology, they’re principally against the location,” Rev. Hindsley said, citing concerns about impacts including lost sleep, fatigue, dizziness and mood disorders among people living near turbines.
Resident Anne Barnes followed him to the microphone with a petition from 378 friends, relatives and lot owners in Beech Grove Cemetery opposed to the aesthetic harm to the village skyline and the “desecration of this historic cemetery.”
Roberts Street resident Tom Shaughnessy suggested the town explore other options for sites, only to learn from Vieira that the committee looked at numerous locations over the years. A town-wide survey indicated “the transfer station and the town cemetery” were the best options, Vieira noted, prompting two Town Meeting votes to use grant funding to conduct testing and a feasibility study of those two sites.
Dan Michaels, an abuttor to the town land, presented a petition signed by 250 abuttors and residents of the area opposed to the Central Village site.
The size of a possible turbine, and the potential financial return for the town, was also up for debate at the Nov. 21 hearing.
The smallest turbine, a 750 KW machine atop a 50-meter tower, might generate as little as $3 million over a 20-year lifespan, while a 1.5 MW turbine atop a 78-meter tower would produce a significantly higher return on investment.
Energy Committee member Jim Bartlett said a recent financial review he conducted with member Ed Goldberg indicated a 750 KW turbine “would be a very risky proposition for the town” with a potential return of only $1.6 million over 20 years when operating and maintenance costs were factored in.
“There are clearly better economics with a larger turbine,” Mr. Bartlett noted, with a 1.5 MW turbine posing “a potential financial win for Westport.”
Goldberg said while the committee “collectively” supports alternative energy production, turbines may not be the town’s best financial option at this time. “There are many other models,” he suggested, with solar power becoming increasingly popular.
“There are other alternatives, and we want to look at them,” he added.
Vieira noted that the interim town administrator is preparing a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a solar array installation at the closed town landfill. That RFP draft was scheduled to be presented to the Board of Selectmen at their Nov. 28 meeting.
Towards the end of the hearing, Thomas was asked to briefly summarize the findings of the feasibility study, and did so in a single sentence.
“The mid-scale turbine has marginal economic benefit; the larger turbine may not be feasible here” because of health and visual impacts, he suggested.
Martha Broad of the Mass. Clean Energy Center said some neighbors are bothered by nearby turbines and others are not, but the concerns have to be weighed for every proposed project. Smaller turbines have less visual and health impacts, but also less appealing economics, she indicated.
Dr. Walter Barnes, a member of the Energy Committee, added potential impacts such as blade failures, ice throw, tower collapses, and lightning strikes to the list, and suggested the town forest site is just “too small an area” for a large turbine. He also suggested the loss of potential future cemetery land was another strike against the location.
A handful of residents did speak in favor of the project, including at least one village resident, but were greatly outnumbered by the opposition.
Pauline Dooley, living across from the cemetery, seemed to sum up the fears of the closest residents. “I would not relish looking out my window and seeing a turbine across the street,” she said. “I don’t think anyone should have it in their front yard.”