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Wind energy study assembles public opinion on development

NORTH ADAMS – Thursday, a selection of Western Massachusetts residents participated in an all-day public opinion study on wind energy, making the area one of only four national locales chosen by the study’s organizers for such a focus.

The 25-person panel gathered at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts’ Murdock Hall for a full day of programming, with members having been selected from a pool of 77 applicants. Two-thirds hailed from Berkshire County and one-third from Franklin County, and panel members were picked for diversity in age, gender, education, income and opinion on wind energy.

Dr. Roopali Phadke, the project’s principal investigator and an associate professor of Environmental Studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Mich., led the day’s programming.

“We’re trying to better understand public opinion about wind energy by a process called ‘citizen jury,’ ” Phadke said in an interview before the meeting. “The information feeds into a larger project.”

The National Science Foundation funded the study by federal grant, and Michigan State University is in charge of the larger project.

According to Phadke, a combination of “high wind energy potential” and “a high concentration of groups drawing attention to concerns with wind energy” make Western Massachusetts an ideal spot for study purposes.

The other three studies in the project, completed earlier in 2012, centered in
Wyoming, Michigan and Minnesota.

In her initial address, Phadke cited the Obama Administration goal of servicing 20 percent of the nation’s energy needs with wind by 2030. This would require more than 2,000 megawatts of development in-state, where currently only 46 megawatts of energy are pumped out by a handful of projects. Coupled with Cape Cod, Western Massachusetts has the greatest potential for development in the commonwealth, Phadke said.

Panel member introductions followed, revealing a group that included environmentalists, town board members, college students, town planners and wind bylaw writers, architects, teachers, renewable energy workers, farmers, ecologists and more.

In two initial go-arounds, panel members were asked to name what they saw as the chief benefits and the most disconcerting drawbacks of wind energy – revealing some strong advocates and others militantly against.

Noteworthy ‘pros’ included less pollution, reduced dependence on fossil fuels, opening a dialogue about energy consumption and better public policy and increasing local tax bases by adding wind developers to the rolls.

On the other side of the coin, adverse effects on human and animal health, infrasound vibrations, potential downturns in tourist economy, decreased property values, structure longevity, forest fragmentation, industrializing rural areas and the motives of developers – who one member accused of attempting to “make a lot of money for a few people on the backs of the public and their taxpayer dollars” – were named as ‘cons,’ among others.

Patrick Field, managing director of the Consensus Building Institute in Cambridge and another study organizer, praised the group’s “wealth of knowledge,” branding participants “a terrific mix.”

“The good part of this discussion is it’s not project-based, it’s not voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a specific wind project,” Field said. “It’s about why people care about what they do and the reasons for their different views. … It frees us up to explore and understand how people feel about these projects more broadly.”

Field and Phadke each pointed out a second goal of the study as providing “meaningful reports” that will prove “useful to local planners” regarding potential wind development.

To this end, Lauren Gaherty, a senior planner with Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, also attended, addressing the panel by calling the day a “great opportunity to have a community dialogue.”

“We need to have this dialogue, and we want people to have it,” Gaherty said. “Our job is to know the ideas and thoughts of our communities and to help with technical assistance in the case of wind projects. … I look forward to the results.”

The rest of the afternoon followed with blend of anonymous surveys, written questionnaires, group work, video showings and more. Phadke said she expected to achieve some greater consensus by the day’s end.

A detailed report of Thursday’s study will be completed by Oct. 1.