The white windmill stands silent over Route 28, a nearly 400-foot tall sentry looming over the main drag into town. The turbine, along with its newer partner, will be seen by thousands of people this summer as they trek to Falmouth and Martha’s Vineyard. And few, if any, will know that this windmill is cursed.
Maybe there isn’t a supernatural reason. But how else can you explain all of the windmill’s misadventures?
It’s safe to say Falmouth officials didn’t factor on any curse before deciding to buy the turbine in 2009. And it’s also safe to say that they didn’t predict that Wind 1, as it’s known now, would put their town in the center of a statewide debate over where these kinds of windmills should be located. The problems that have ensued since Wind 1 started spinning in 2010 will certainly weigh on state environmental regulators as they consider whether to adopt new turbine rules.
Wind 1’s cursed history dates all the way back to December 2005, when the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative ordered the Vestas-manufactured turbine and one other for $5.2 million. The purpose was to expedite a municipal wind project in Orleans, with the help of funds collected from Massachusetts ratepayers. The Orleans project eventually fell through in 2007, and the turbines were then slotted for delivery to Fairhaven. But that Fairhaven project didn’t come to fruition, either – at least not with those two Vestas turbines.
And so MTC, whose renewable energy responsibilities are currently handled by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, faced a dilemma. The agency was blowing through thousands of dollars a month in storage fees for the windmill parts, stored separately in Texas and Canada.
MTC was having problems finding a buyer – or at least a buyer with a location that could be endorsed by the turbines’ manufacturer. Vestas ruled out possible sites in Princeton and Gloucester. The agency considered looking for out-of-state buyers in 2009, even though Massachusetts ratepayers were paying the bills.
MTC didn’t need to take that extreme step. Falmouth acquired Wind 1, installing it next to the town’s wastewater treatment plant. The other Vestas turbine ended up in a nearby industrial park, to be run by Notus Clean Energy LLC. A MassCEC spokeswoman says about $146,000 was spent to warehouse the Wind 1 components for three years.
The bad news should have ended there. But that’s not the way curses work. Almost immediately, neighbors of Wind 1 started reporting symptoms such as tinnitus and sleeplessness. They said they expected a much smaller, less powerful turbine than the 1.65-megawatt beast erected by the town. And they began complaining – loudly.
At first, their complaints were primarily limited to Falmouth’s borders. At one point last spring, in an effort to broker a peace, Falmouth officials agreed to turn Wind 1 off during days with high winds. This was a nice gesture, but it almost defeated the purpose of owning one of these windmills. It would be like agreeing to unplug solar panels on sunny days.
The complaints attracted more attention after a state-appointed task force assembled to study wind turbines’ health impacts released its report in January. The report largely exonerated wind turbines of their sins, but there was an admission that noise from these turbines could cause sleep disruption. The Department of Environmental Protection received hundreds of comments from the public about the report. Of those, DEP spokesman Ed Coletta says, Falmouth was the only significant source of local complaints.
While all this was going on, Falmouth finally got Wind 2, a newer turbine at the wastewater plant, plugged in and spinning. That unsurprisingly rankled Wind 1’s opponents, and prompted even more complaints.
The DEP conducted some nighttime sound tests in March on neighboring properties, and found that the sound from Wind 1 surpassed state limits. Town officials agreed to turn off Wind 1 at night, but then this month decided to take it offline completely until mid-June for more sound tests.
The controversy hasn’t shown any sign of dying. Dozens of residents packed a town meeting room in Falmouth on Thursday night, many of them airing their complaints about the turbines for yet another time.
Coletta says the DEP hasn’t finalized what to do with the task force report. The agency is deciding whether to put new regulations in place, he says, and the numerous concerns raised about Wind 1 in Falmouth will certainly play a role in the outcome.
The public comment period for the report ended before turbines in Kingston and Fairhaven went online this spring, turbines that have also caused concerns among neighbors, Coletta says.
Sue Reid, the Conservation Law Foundation’s Massachusetts director, likes to point to the success stories. Nearly all of the 50-plus utility-grade turbines that have gone up in recent years don’t generate many complaints, she says. And she says supporters outnumbered critics 2-1 in a hearing in Hyannis the other night on the controversial offshore Cape Wind project, which seeks state approval to buy power from NStar. Reid says the backlash from Wind 1 and a few others could put the fate of future turbine projects at risk, projects that would help reduce our need for fossil fuels to keep the lights on.
Wind 1 might seem like it’s just a curse that Falmouth has to bear alone. In reality, though, the fate of that tall, white windmill underscores a broader problem that needs to be addressed – a problem that affects all of us.