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Can Falmouth turbines be relocated?

FALMOUTH – It took seven years and dozens of permits to get Falmouth’s two wind turbines up and running.

But moving them to another location could take just as long and cost the town millions of dollars.

For two years, homeowners living nearby the town-owned “Wind 1” and “Wind 2” turbines have argued that moving the turbines could alleviate problems – such as headaches, vertigo and a host of other symptoms – while maintaining the money generated by the electricity they produce.

“The solution is going to be moving them,” said Malcolm Donald, a Falmouth resident who lives about 2,700 feet from the wastewater treatment plant on Blacksmith Shop Road, where both turbines are located. “People are going to come to that conclusion eventually.”

The U.S. Department of Energy is unaware of any city or town in the country ever moving a wind turbine, a spokeswoman said, and a look at the cost involved and the regulatory hurdles the town would need to clear beg the question of whether moving the turbines is a real option.

Donald attends most meetings of town boards when issues related to the turbines appear on the agenda. He also regularly attends meetings of the Falmouth Wind Turbines Options Analysis Process – a panel charged with recommending options to selectmen – which earlier this month heard a presentation about a possible new location for the turbines.

Robert Shea, the town’s Geographical Information Systems coordinator, created a PowerPoint presentation that featured maps of the spots most conducive to wind turbines.

Shea said an alternate site for one of both of the turbines could be about 3½ miles northeast of the current turbines, which is less than a half-mile from housing on Camp Edwards on the Massachusetts Military Reservation.

“That might cut it out” as an option, Shea said in an interview after his presentation.

Shea based his choice on a number of factors, including wind currents, airplane flight paths and proximity of homes.

Camp Edwards’ housing falls within the distance the Cape Cod Commission ruled in May 2011 that turbines should keep from residential housing. Homes should not be within a 2,700-foot radius of turbines, commission members said.

But the Cape Cod Commission would have no jurisdiction over the turbine placement and would not review it unless asked by Falmouth officials, said Ryan Christenberry, a planner with the commission.

An MMR spokesman said officials at the base could not comment on whether moving one or both turbines to that location would be problematic for them, because no requests have been made to do so. “(This is) the most feasible place,” Shea said in an interview. “Other places have even more issues.”

relocation obstacles

Even if Falmouth officials found a perfect alternate spot, the moving process could take years and cost millions.

If the turbines were moved, the permitting process would have to start all over again, requiring the town to take the same steps it took during the seven years it took to get them up and running, said Stephen Wiehe of the engineering firm Weston & Sampson Inc.

Wiehe, who managed the project for five years, said any location would need approval from boards concerned with wildlife, natural heritage and historic value, among others. It would probably take about two years, he said.

The town would also likely need to reapply with NStar to get permission to hook up to the local power grid.

“We would conduct a thorough engineering review, just as we would any installation of this type, to determine if the grid in that area currently has the capacity of handling the electricity that the turbine would produce,” said Michael Durand, an NStar spokesman.

The increased volume of applications for turbine projects that NStar now receives could also increase the lag time between the town’s submission and the utility’s response, Wiehe said.

A Weston & Sampson study places the total cost of moving both turbines to a different location at $4.48 million. The estimate takes into account planning, transportation and design costs. It does not take into account approximately $60,000 worth of underground electronic infrastructure in each turbine that would be abandoned or possible losses in electricity and revenue during the relocation.

grant in jeopardy?

Some proponents of the move, such as Donald, also say if Falmouth decides to relocate the turbines, the turbines should be stopped until installed in their new location.

When fully operational, the turbines provide a combined annual revenue of about $900,000, said Gerald Potamis, Falmouth’s wastewater superintendent who oversees the turbines. In addition to losing that revenue, electricity bills at the wastewater treatment facility, which the turbines help power, would rise by about $120,000 each year, Potamis said.

When town meeting passed a budget of approximately $112 million, lost revenue and higher electricity bills were not in the plan, Town Manager Julian Suso said.

“The presumption was that both turbines would be fully operating,” Suso said in an interview last week, just two weeks into the new fiscal year.

The matter of what would happen to nearly $5 million received in a federal grant for the turbines is also a concern because it’s unclear if there would be repercussions for a long-term turbine shutdown.

“I think it’s fair to say we might have to pay that back,” Potamis said in an interview.

Also unclear is whether Vestas, the turbine manufacturer, would continue honoring the warranty and service agreements it holds with Falmouth, Potamis said.

Potamis did not release details related to the town’s warranty and service agreements with Vestas, citing Vestas policy.

If the turbines were moved, the new distance from the wastewater treatment plant could also change their use. The turbines could be used to power something else in town, or even be repurposed to sell energy to NStar, turning them into a renewable energy power plant, Potamis said.

Despite the obstacles, turbine neighbors like Donald believe the town can find solutions, such as possibly placing the turbines outside Falmouth’s borders. Anything that moves them away from his house works for him.

“The other mitigation options “» when all is said and done, I believe everyone is going to realize they’re insufficient,” Donald said.