NORTH ADAMS – Massachusetts only uses about 4 percent of its total, land-based wind energy potential, according to the National Renewable Energy Lab. And with the clock ticking on government goals to boost wind energy power by 2030, a National Science Foundation-funded study has come to western Massachusetts to find out “why people have different views” when it comes to wind turbine proposals.
Seven Franklin County residents and 18 Berkshire County residents participated in an all-day symposium Thursday at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts – both to learn more about wind energy and to air their hopes and concerns about wind turbines. They were culled from 77 applicants for this project.
“We’re not advocating for or against wind energy,” stressed Roopali Phadke, a Macalester College, Minn., environmental studies professor who led the program.
Phadke said the northeastern states have fewer wind turbine facilities but more activist groups that have been involved in wind controversies.
“We try not to call them ‘NIMBY’ (not in my backyard) or ‘anti-wind,’ but more groups are in areas that have less wind energy – or no wind energy – installations,” she said.
She said there are about 200 organizations, and researchers are also interested in tracking “the social concerns about wind energy.”
Phadke said the Obama administration’s goal is to have 20 percent of the nation’s energy generated by wind-power by 2030. She said the goal for Massachusetts is to produce between 5,000 and 10,000 megawatts of wind energy by then.
“Massachusetts now has 46 megawatts – that is a fraction of the wind power installed in California, which has 4,200 megawatts,” said Phadke.
Texas leads the nation in terms of how much wind-powered energy is produced, with 10,648 megawatts produced there. Iowa and California are next in line with 4,419 and 4,287 respectively.
The Franklin County representatives came from hill towns that have considered wind turbine proposals or wind turbine bylaws within the past year: Ashfield, Buckland, Charlemont, Colrain, Heath and Rowe.
In the morning session, the participants were given multiple-choice questions about their own feelings about wind energy. As soon as all 25 had submitted their answers, percentages for each possible answer were presented on the screen.
Among the findings were that:
• About 63 percent of the participants had seen a wind turbine “up close;” 25 percent could see a wind turbine from their property, and 17 percent were “not familiar” with wind turbines.
• One participant owned a wind turbine; 30 percent had participated in public hearings about turbines, and 36 percent had sought out more information about them.
• When asked what the “most important potential energy benefit” of wind turbines are, and to list the top three benefits, 65 percent said it would increase the nation’s energy resources, and 61 percent said it would have an effect on climate change, as a carbonneutral system. But 39 percent marked “other,” as their answer. Several participants said they didn’t agree with any of the benefits that were given as choices.
• When asked about the drawbacks of wind energy, and given a choice of up to three answers, 63 percent mentioned the scenic impact; 75 percent mentioned noise concerns and 63 percent chose the possible impact on wildlife and habitat.
• When asked their overall attitude toward wind energy in the nation, 8 percent “strongly supported it,” 33 percent “supported” it; 25 percent were neutral, 17 percent opposed it, and 17 percent “strongly opposed” it.
• However, when asked what they thought about wind power within their own communities, 13 percent “strongly” supported it; 13 percent “supported” it; 33 percent were neutral, 8 percent were opposed and 33 percent “strongly opposed” it.
“More folks are strongly opposed ‘in my town,’” observed Patrick Field, managing director of the Consensus Building Institute of Cambridge, who did the polling.
The rest of the symposium was closed to the press and public, so that participants would feel free to discuss their views. Later in the day, the group was to discuss the social and economic impacts of wind turbines, and to create a “consensus statement” at the end of the program. Also, the researchers wanted to learn if their views on wind had changed as a result of the discussions that day.
Most of the participants gave their views on wind energy earlier in the morning. One man from Florida, Mass., who was in favor of wind energy, said the nearby Hoosac Wind Project will generate $150,000 more in payment in lieu of tax revenues yearly for that town.
Several said they supported small-scale wind development and would have like to deal with that issue separately from “industrial scale” wind.
Several said they have already lived “off the grid.” When asked to name an advantage of wind power, participants listed turbines as a chance to break away from fossil-fuel dependence, to help farmers increase productivity, to increase income and to provide “small-scale self-sufficiency. Others said they thought the economic benefits would all go to the developers, while the public would pay for the infrastructure. Health issues were a big concern for some, while others said the issue “will take us away from pursuing good energy policy” that should include using energy more wisely and improving energy efficiency.
The Western Mass. symposium will be the last of four National Science Foundation-funded studies; and the results from all four studies will be compared. A report of the findings based on Thursday’s forum is expected to be released in October.
Among those present was Peggy Sloan, director of planning and development for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, and Berkshire Regional Planning Commission Planner Lauren Gaherty. Both planning agencies co-sponsored the symposium.
“You are here to help us to understand what our communities are thinking,” Gaherty told the participants, who were paid $100 each to spend the day at the symposium. “Our job is to help our communities in planning and provide technical assistance, when its requested. Often we hear about wind energy at public meetings and when people are polarized. We want you to tell us what people think about wind and how they want (wind turbines) to be sited – if they want them at all.”