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Falmouth may spend millions to remove turbines

FALMOUTH— Standing in the shadow of Falmouth’s two town-owned wind turbines on Wednesday, Selectmen Vice Chairman Brent Putnam said he felt a squeeze in the air pressure and heard the loud mechanical noise akin to a jet engine.

“You can feel it,” Putnam said.

That sealed his decision about Falmouth’s two 1.65-megawatt turbines at the Wastewater Treatment Facility.

He then drove about five miles to a special selectmen’s meeting where, for the first time, he and all four other selectmen voted in support of removing the town-owned Wind 1 and Wind 2 turbines, the cause of a bitter three-year controversy in town that began when neighbors complained of adverse health effects they say were from the turbines.

Wednesday night, selectmen voted in favor of sending delegations from the board to state legislators and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center – a public agency funded with ratepayer dollars – to find out how much financial assistance and debt forgiveness the town could receive if it takes down the turbines.

The board also plans to vote Monday on three separate warrant articles for a special town meeting in April that would collectively recommend the decommissioning of the turbines, fund the dismantling process and pay the cost of operating them for the rest of the fiscal year.

“This is something that has polarized the community,” Selectmen Chairman Kevin Murphy said. “It was a situation in which Murphy’s Law played out.”

In a presentation Wednesday night, Assistant Town Manager Heather Harper – who served as the turbine project’s manager – told selectmen that taking down the turbines would cost up to $11.9 million.

It would cost up to $1.5 million in the first year when accounting for dismantling costs, annual energy costs and other considerations, Harper said. Residents would pay an average of $53 to $66 in additional taxes that year.

Tearing down Wind 1 and Wind 2 may quash arguments among residents and town officials that began when the first turbine was erected in 2010 at a cost of $4.3 million, but the cost of decommissioning them could ignite new quarrels between local and state officials.

In the years leading up to Wind 1’s ribbon cutting, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the Clean Energy Center’s predecessor, funded a feasibility study and provided expert advice for design and siting, Catherine Williams, a spokeswoman for the center, said.

In 2007, the Technology Collaborative prepaid Falmouth for $1.9 million dollars in Renewable Energy Credits they expected the turbine to produce. The center, which was established as part of Gov. Deval Patrick’s 2008 Green Jobs Act, sold the Wind 1 turbine to Falmouth in 2009. The turbine had been in storage after Orleans’ water commissioners rejected a plan to install it and another one in a public drinking-water watershed in their town.

“I would certainly hope that they would see it within their financial ability to waive the money for the renewable energy credits,” said Selectmen Douglas Jones, one of two selectmen chosen by the board to speak to officials from the center about taking down Falmouth’s turbines.

Noting that data provided by the center guided many of the town’s decisions related to siting and installation of the turbines, Putnam also sees the agency as partially responsible for the fallout.
“A lot of the information we received about the process was from them,” Putnam said. “We had originally started with a 660-kilowatt turbine and moved up to the 1.65-megawatt turbine, you’ve got to wonder if we would have had all this trouble.”

The center funded a $388,000 report by a town panel charged with finding options to mitigate turbine complaints from abutters and plans to continuing working with the town, Williams said. But it was the town, not the center, that approved Wind 1’s site.
“Our role is to help communities gather the information they need,” Williams said. “At the end of the day, the decision is with the local communities.”

Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, praised the idea of removing the turbines.
Murray, who selectmen named as a legislator they would likely approach seeking financial assistance, said in a statement she looks forward to hearing more about Falmouth’s decommissioning plans.

“This is an issue that has divided the community and I want to thank the town for their commitment to continuing to find a solution that works best for all residents,” she said.
About 10 days ago, Rep David Vieira, R-Falmouth, filed a Wind Energy Relief Act at the Statehouse that would create two funds totaling $22.5 million.

The funds would go toward compensating people and businesses for detrimental effects on health or property resulting from turbines in locations chosen in cooperation with the CEC. Funds would also help towns to relocate or decommission turbines.

Selectmen’s support of dismantling the turbines on Wednesday was a step in the right direction, said Malcolm Donald, an abutter and outspoken opponent of the turbines.

“I’m guardedly happy,” Donald said. “My fear is that they’re going to drag this out as long as possible to generate as much revenue as possible.”