When Falmouth decided to buy its first wind turbine in 2009, it seemed like a great way to save on electric costs at the town’s power-hungry sewage treatment plant.
But after nearly four years, it looks like the decision may end up costing Falmouth far more than any savings it achieved. The town’s selectmen are trying to cobble together $14 million for an unprecedented action in this state: taking down the turbine and a second one, and paying back debts owed on the windmills.
“Initially, I was a skeptic, not necessarily a believer in some of the complaints being made,” said Bret Putnam, vice chairman of Falmouth’s board of selectmen. “(But) I had some opportunities to hear the turbines when the wind was blowing at 20 miles per hour. … It sounds like a low-flying jet. You can feel it. There’s really an effect on the air pressure.”
As the issue heads to a town vote next month, the saga of the unwanted turbine and its newer neighbor poses important lessons for the renewable energy industry and for municipal officials interested in plugging into it. These are lessons that officials at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the state’s renewable energy agency, say they are taking to heart. And they’ll likely play a role as the state Department of Environmental Protection weighs possible new rules governing turbine noise.
The turbines divided this town like no other issue in recent years. The 400-foot-tall sentries loom over Route 28, the main highway into Falmouth. They’re so well-known locally, they even have their own nicknames: Wind 1, Wind 2 and the privately owned Notus nearby.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the saga, at least as it relates to Wind 1 and Notus, is that this isn’t the first time someone has tried to get rid of them.
The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative originally bought the two 1.65-megawatt turbines in December 2005 for $5.3 million using the state’s ratepayer-funded renewable energy trust fund. The goal was to speed up the shipment of the Vestas-manufactured turbines, which were in high demand at the time, to the town of Orleans.
But the Orleans project fell through in 2007. The turbines were then slated for a project for Fairhaven, but that was shelved amid concerns regarding a legal challenge there. The MTC also checked out sites in Princeton and Gloucester, but Vestas wouldn’t approve those locations. By mid-2008, the MTC had put the turbines up for sale. All the while, the MTC burned through nearly $350,000 on storage fees while the windmill parts sat unused at facilities in Texas and Canada.
To Falmouth, these turbines seemed like a smart solution to the wastewater treatment plant costs. Putnam said there was near-unanimous town meeting support for buying Wind 1, and few complaints at the time. The town subsequently bought Wind 2, a similar turbine, from Vestas. A Falmouth landowner bought the other MTC turbine, now known as Notus, and installed it in a nearby industrial park.
But the complaints did start coming – not long after Wind 1 started spinning in 2010. The issues largely focused on the unexpected amount of noise, excess sound that complainants said led to sleeplessness, headaches and other problems. Attempts to reach a compromise were made, but no lasting resolution was reached.
The complaints eventually reached the state level, prompting DEP sound tests on neighboring properties last March. The sound at Wind 1, at least, was surpassing nighttime limits for ambient noise. Eventually, both wind turbines were shut down at nighttime.
Town officials still sought a long-term solution. Daytime-only use still essentially would turn some of these neighbors into prisoners in their own homes, as would any plan to soundproof the residences, Putnam said. Buying out homeowners outright was deemed impractical. The best option to fix the town’s mistake, Putnam said, turned out to be taking the two turbines down.
Putnam estimates that disassembling them could cost up to $4 million. There’s also about $5 million that the town borrowed to buy and install Wind 1, and stipulations on the federal grant money to buy Wind 2 could mean the town would owe another $5 million if it’s shut down, Putnam said.
A vote to borrow more than $8 million for the teardown fell short of mustering the two-thirds majority vote it needed at Falmouth’s town meeting earlier this month. But $100,000 was approved to further study the issue, and to gauge what the turbines could fetch on the open market.
The next step: a town referendum on May 21 in which voters will be asked whether the town should pony up the money necessary to remove the two turbines. Putnam said a subsequent town meeting approval would still be needed.
Massachusetts Clean Energy Center CEO Alicia Barton said the state agency is now looking for more sound data and more community engagement in residential areas where subsidized turbines would rise. But Barton said most of the state’s 40-plus wind turbine sites are generating a minimal number of complaints, if any. “It’s a handful of those (where) we’ve seen complaints so far,” Barton said. “We know wind turbines can be compatible with their neighbors in the right circumstances.”
That said, there are a number of lessons that are still being learned from the debacle.
Putnam said communities should take the size of the turbines they’re buying into consideration. Town officials hoped to get more bang for their buck by opting for a 1.65-megawatt turbine instead of a 660-kilowatt one, but that decision was probably the first mistake the town made. The noise complaints highlight the need for proper setbacks between homes and turbines, Putnam said. He also only recently learned that all three Vestas turbines on the Falmouth hilltop use a noisier blade technology than the other major turbine style.
Larry Chretien, executive director of the Mass Energy Consumers Alliance, said the problems in Falmouth represent a cautionary tale that underscores the importance of proper sound tests before a windmill is installed. But he worries that the unprecedented step of removing these turbines could have significant ripple effects. “Taking them down right now is just going to have obviously a chilling effect on the potential for wind projects not just in Massachusetts but elsewhere,” Chretien said.
Ian Bowles, a former environmental secretary in the Patrick administration who now works as an energy advisor in Boston, said it’s not surprising that the expansion of wind turbines is running into some resistance. The state, he said, is shifting from a reliance on a few large, centralized fossil fuel plants, to a more diffuse network of energy sources.
“There is no energy technology out there of any real consequence that doesn’t have environmental and social impacts that need to be carefully studied and addressed,” said David O’Connor, a former state energy commissioner who is now a senior vice president at ML Strategies in Boston. “Just by using a renewable fuel, whether it’s sun or the air, does not eliminate that responsibility, that challenge.”