From the interstate, the towers appear like small stick-figures in the mountains.
Their presence – 24 white wind turbines curving down the ridges beyond Plymouth – beg for a double-take amid the scenic landscape. For now, the fans are stagnant. When the blades begin to turn later this year, the 400-foot turbines at Groton Wind are expected to generate enough energy to run an average of 20,000 homes.
Edward Cherian, a regional director who has overseen the project for developer Iberdrola Renewables, said the visual impact was an initial roadblock for Groton Wind. But compared to electrical wires and smokestacks, the now-expected markings of energy production, he sees the turbines as a beautiful sign of progress.
“People say ‘I don’t want to look at it,’ ” Cherian said. “I see wind turbines, and I see green electricity that we’re producing in New Hampshire as opposed to burning fossil fuels or importing from another country.”
And though wind is fickle, meaning it won’t ever dominate the market, experts say there is more space for wind turbines in New Hampshire’s mountains.
Iberdrola put up its first meteorological towers on Groton’s Tenney and Fletcher ridges in 2006. For several years, the company studied the wind there – measuring its strength, its smoothness as it flows over other peaks and a series of other factors – while determining whether Groton was an ideal wind farm location.
“People will say, ‘I’ve looked at wind maps and this doesn’t look like the windiest place in New Hampshire,’ ” Paul Copleman, spokesman for the Spain-based company said. “And what the meteorologists will tell you is all the publicly available maps are guides, not gospel.”
Cherian said there are probably 40 spots in the state that could make good wind farms, but only five or six of them might make the cut after testing. And then one major factor – the community’s interest – narrows the group further.
“It’s not like we’re building condos and leaving. So our relationship with the town of Groton and the people that live here is critical,” he said. “If the town of Groton said ‘You know, thanks, but no thanks,’ we wouldn’t have come here.”
While some in the small town of 600 initially voiced concerns over the project, Selectman Miles Sinclair said the pushback was surprisingly minimal. The strongest opposition came from surrounding towns, according to Sinclair, who said some worried about adverse health or environmental effects.
In 2010 hearings before the project was approved, some cited concerns over Wind Turbine Syndrome, a term used by a New York pediatrician who claims to have linked the turbine’s low-frequency noise to symptoms like headaches and nausea.
Iberdrola maintains that studies have consistently shown no negative health effects, and Sinclair said the site evaluation committee ultimately agreed.
To address noise concerns, Iberdrola loaded residents from Groton and Rumney onto buses and drove them to a wind farm the company operates in Lempster. That project, about half the size of Groton Wind, turned on four years ago, and Cherian said he encouraged attendees to carry on conversations under the turbines so they could hear the minimal whooshing sound overhead.
While some residents had remaining reservations, the approximately $100 million project received final state approval in July 2011.
Possibly the biggest draw for the town has been financial.
Groton, with only a handful of commercial properties, will see its tax valuation double because of the project, according to Sinclair. In the first year alone, Iberdrola’s payments to Groton will also double the town’s budget.
The 15-year agreement, totaling $9.4 million, starts with providing the town $528,000 and increases by 2.5 percent each year after. Groton has already received $100,000 from Iberdrola during construction, money that Sinclair said went to buying much-needed equipment.
Sinclair said the influx of revenue was simply “huge” for Groton.
“It has put the town in a very enviable position and unique position to be able to obtain things or do things that we wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to do,” he said.
Voters will ultimately decide where the new revenue is spent, but Sinclair said he initially sees the funding fixing roads that have fallen into disrepair. No new construction is in the pipeline though, and Sinclair said he anticipates voters at least initially using the funds for routine work rather than fancy upgrades.
And while tax relief has been discussed, Sinclair said many have warned against dramatically dropping the town tax rate, afraid it will draw in more residential and commercial development.
The turbines are fine, he said, but residents don’t want to see them change the makeup of the town.
“People basically want to try to keep the town the way it is now, its nice rural character, its peacefulness, its recreational opportunities,” he said. “And they really don’t want to see that change, certainly not drastically.”
16,500 cars off the road
The last of the 24 turbines were expected to be erected last week, and soon those around the mountain might notice the blades spinning as the company begins tests. When the project goes online later this year, it is anticipated to produce enough energy to power an average of 20,000 homes and 58,000 homes at its peak.
According to Iberdrola, the project will offset carbon dioxide emissions by almost 200 million pounds each year, the equivalent of taking 16,500 cars off the road.
The power will be purchased by NStar, a subsidiary of Public Service of New Hampshire’s parent company, Northeast Utilities.
Cherian said the turbines, which are anchored to the mountains using deep metal rods, work essentially like any other engine, except the power isn’t provided by wood pellets or natural gas.
“Any generator is something that turns inside of a series of magnets,” he said. “In this case, it’s the wind that’s turning them.”
The electricity created in the turbine’s gearbox is then sent down the 260-foot tower into the ground where wires connect all of the turbines. The energy comes above ground at a substation on the property, then travels to the regional power grid via power lines and telephone poles. In the grid, the electricity is mixed with other sources and sent out across New England.
With minimal maintenance, the turbines being installed in Groton have a lifespan of at least 30 years, according to Copleman, who said the company could either close down the project or update the equipment when the technology is outdated.
What happens when the farm has reached the end of its usable life, though, was one of the biggest concerns for the selectmen, according to Sinclair. In initial discussions, Iberdrola promised to cover decommissioning costs and return the land to its previous state. But Sinclair said the town wanted a more concrete financial assurance.
“With just the global economy in general, I personally don’t believe there is any such thing as something that’s too big to fail. One of my questions is what happens if Iberdrola goes bankrupt?” he said.
The groups finally agreed that if Iberdrola’s credit rating fell below an A-, the town would then receive a letter of credit from the company’s bank allowing Groton to access funds for decommissioning.
Sinclair called the negotiation “hard fought” and “hard won” because Iberdrola’s rating did recently dip below an A- due to lags in the Spanish economy.
The town received its letter of credit from the bank a few weeks ago, and Sinclair said the letter can be rescinded if the company’s credit rating improves.
About 75 miles south of Groton, another wind farm is in the works. If approved through the state’s permitting process, the Antrim Wind Farm could become New Hampshire’s fourth such development. (The third is in Coos County.)
The state’s Renewable Portfolio Standards require utilities to provide a percentage of power from renewable sources. That means residents should expect more wind power in the future, according to Bob Grace, president of the renewable energy analysis and consulting firm Sustainable Energy Advantage.
But the industry has natural limitations, with just a few places providing the mix of suitable wind and public acceptance. Still, Grace said wind power is the cheapest and most plentiful of renewable energy sources in the region, with hydropower resources mostly saturated and solar still costly.
Grace said five of the New England states have Renewable Portfolio Standards similar to New Hampshire’s, and as those requirements increase, wind seems to be one of the most viable options.
“The Groton project is neither the beginning nor the end of wind build out,” he said. “There are strong increasing demands for wind energy from all the states in New England.”
Even at full capacity, though, Grace said turbines will never be found on all of New Hampshire’s mountains. Wind farms will saturate the prime real estate, and as technology progresses wind turbines are getting larger and eliciting more public concern.
“As they get bigger, public acceptance issues increase,” he said. “They’re more visible.”
As the final turbines went up in Groton last week, several residents said they would have a different take on the development if it were larger or if others already spotted the mountains. Frank Freeman, who lives in nearby Thornton, called the turbines “kinetic art” and said the value far outweighs the visual impact.
“Compared to the total panorama of the White Mountains region, it’s isolated,” he said. “And if it can be useful from an energy standpoint, then it’s worth it.”
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