Swampscott – A wind turbine will not be built behind the Middle School on Forest Avenue, the Renewable Energy Committee having rejected the idea at their meeting Wednesday, Dec. 21 at the High School. “The primary reason was the finances,” explained Department of Public Works Assistant Engineer and Renewable Energy Committee member Victoria Masone. “The Wind Turbine Generator Feasibility Study showed a 16 year payback period. That’s way too long.”
Although the site was deemed the best in town by a 2008 study conducted by the UMass Amherst Renewable Energy Lab, based on the second study, funded by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, Masone said it was only “on the threshold of what’s viable for a good project. If the wind was stronger, it would generate more power and the payback period would be shorter.”
“We looked at all the criteria in the study and based our decision on whether the project met the criteria,” added committee Chairman Neal Duffy. “We rejected this particular recommendation of this particular turbine at this particular site for all kinds of reasons, but mainly the finances. It would not be a good way to use the town’s resources.”
Another way to shorten the payback period on the estimated $3 million cost would have been to secure grants but Masone said they would have had to be “substantial” to do so. Duffy thinks “grant opportunities don’t seem to be coming along soon.”
In 16 years, who knows how technically current or obsolete a wind turbine might be. “We discussed the useful life of a machine,” Masone said. “You don’t want to pay for more than half the useful life; we estimated 20 years. By then, the technology would have changed significantly.”
The UMass study determined the best spot for a turbine and how it would comply with state guidelines for windiness and for noise levels. The Forest Avenue site was ranked best among four considered because it was among the highest, and therefore windiest, spots in town and a turbine there was easily connectable to a public building, namely the Middle School, which would have allowed power generated to be credited against accounts for the entire government of Swampscott.
After a report in the Boston Globe that the town “announced preliminary plans” to build it, panicked citizens flocked to a meeting of the committee Sept. 22 at which they were told nothing had been decided and that any project required approval by Town Meeting. The primary concerns of residents were the visual and auditory impacts of a projected 335-foot turbine and resulting changes in property values. (For comparison, a wind turbine in Forbes Park, Chelsea, visible from Revere Beach Parkway just before it crosses over Broadway in Revere, is 276 feet.)
“We listened to the concerns of residents, which they brought up right away, but weren’t at that stage yet,” Masone said of the decision making process. “We couldn’t get past the viability stage. Our approach was to evaluate the technical merit. If there isn’t enough technical merit, there’s no need to continue.”
Forest Avenue resident Ron Landen, who lives on across the street from the Middle School, feels, “Considering all the factors, financial and environmental, the committee made the right decision for the town. Wind turbines of this size don’t belong anywhere in our town. They’re too big and expensive. I’d feel the same way regardless of where I lived.”
Wind could still be part of the town’s energy future. “We did not reject wind in Swampscott, only this recommendation based on the data in this study,” Duffy points out.
Of the three other sites considered, Aggregate Industries land would probably be considered better than Phillips Park or the soccer field/track behind the High School. If the Aggregate quarry closes, it could be a good spot for a wind turbine even bigger than the one considered for Forest Avenue. “To make it more viable, you have to go to a bigger machine,” Masone said. “It wouldn’t be that much more money but would generate more power and more money and the Aggregate land is further away from homes.” At the Sept. 22 meeting, Renewable Energy Committee member Wayne Spritz called the Aggregate site ideal for that reason but there is no close connection to a government building.
“The wind speed is a little lower on Aggregate land than behind the Middle School,” Duffy said. He’s not sure bigger would be more viable. Under present circumstances he thinks, “The cost outweighs the benefit no matter where a turbine would be.”
Although the idea in the study has been rejected and a new one will be needed for a future site, Masone thinks the information provided will be useful in the long run. “It’s important we have a benchmark for what’s not acceptable,” she said.
“Without this study, we wouldn’t know what we’re talking about,” Duffy agreed. “Now we do. If in the future there’s a smaller turbine, we have data for a comparison. Just because it meets state regulations, it doesn’t mean we find it acceptable as a community.”
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