With firm resistance from town officials and hundreds of people turning out at recent Zoning Board of Review hearings to oppose a special permit for two large turbines, Charlestown and wind power have, shall we say, a problematic relationship.
North Kingstown and wind power had quite a rocky beginning, too.
The nearly 1-year-old, 413-foot turbine at North Kingstown Green, a new housing development, rises from behind the newly constructed Wickford commuter rail station, despite the determined efforts of resident groups and town officials concerned about changes to the town’s landscape and skyline.
“There was a lot of outcry,” said Elizabeth Dolan, North Kingstown Town Council president. “The public perception was one of general dread.”
The North Kingstown turbine was tied into the development of a 30-home residential subdivision built by Mark DePasquale, CEO of Wind Energy Development LLC, who built a home of his own there. The Charlestown wind turbines, nearly the same height as the one in North Kingstown, are proposed for an undeveloped 81-acre site north of Route 1. Developer Larry LeBlanc unsuccessfully attempted to build an affordable housing complex there in the past. The Charlestown zoning hearing has been continued until Aug. 28 as town officials and the current property owner, N.I.N. LLC, negotiate a possible town purchase of the site.
In North Kingstown, the opponents included an organized group called NO Residential Wind North Kingstown, which fought DePasquale’s proposal through the zoning and planning processes. They cited the controversy involving two town-owned wind turbines in Falmouth, Mass., after residents had complained about the noise, leading to a May referendum on their removal. But Falmouth’s voters turned back that challenge and the turbines are still running from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; nearby residents are demanding that the town buy out their homes.
Dolan said she and other council members visited the Falmouth turbines with a decibel meter, “and our noise meters didn’t exceed 50 decibels.” Many municipal and state regulations on noise from wind turbines use 50 decibels, about 10 decibels louder than average suburban background noise, as a standard.
On another trip to Gloucester, Mass., where three turbines similar to North Kingstown’s are sited near a town beach, “I asked one of the lifeguards if there was any controversy, and he said there were no objections at all,” Dolan said,
In North Kingstown’s case, Dolan said, the people closest to the turbine have just bought property in North Kingstown Green, and are getting a tangible benefit: savings on electricity through National Grid, for which the turbine produces power. The utility company then pays Wind Energy Development, and each resident receives a share.
“It works out well, because each resident is getting a rebate on their electric bills,” she said.
Attempts to reach DePasquale for comment were unsuccessful.
As a result of the public outcry against the turbine, North Kingstown’s council approved a moratorium on turbine development in December 2011, while another proposed turbine was in the planning stages. That turbine was proposed for Stamp Farm, on the North Kingstown-Exeter border.
Dolan said the moratorium, which has been renewed on several occasions, will give the state Office of Energy Resources, which governs wind power, the opportunity to establish a set of regulations.
“We’re just waiting for the state to promulgate more detailed guidelines. We need to have some consistency,” she said.
NO Residential Wind North Kingstown’s website does not appear to have been updated since last October. Requests for comment from a representative of the group have not been answered.
Al Bettencourt, executive director of the Rhode Island Farm Bureau, is also hoping to see more action from the state as he works to support the siting of wind turbines on farms. His organization introduced legislation in the General Assembly this year to allow the state to designate available sites for turbines on farmland, but it did not receive enough committee support to reach the floor.
“We backed off, because we wanted to get a full year of data. There’s a lot of naysayers out there,” he said.
Setback regulations, which would govern the distance from the property line that the turbine could be sited, are the crux of the issue, Bettencourt said. “We’ve asked for a one-and-a-quarter (feet times the height of the turbine) height setback, but some people have balked at that and want 2 feet,” he said.
The Wickford turbine, he said, has not created a noise problem. “You can stand under that windmill and there’s practically no noise at all,” he said.
The Farm Bureau supports wind power development, he said, “because the state wants 16 percent renewable energy, and wind is the best way to do it. Solar is more expensive and takes up a lot more space. Turbines are also a second income for farmers.”
Bettencourt and Dolan agreed that there is a certain not-in-my-backyard element to opposition to wind power, and blamed fear and misinformation. For example, Bettencourt said one foe of the Stamp Farm plan complained that a blade could fly off the turbine and land on a school bus, an occurrence he said couldn’t happen with sufficient setback.
In addition to noise and setback concerns, flicker (fast-moving shadows caused by blade rotation) is an issue often raised by opponents. But shutdowns in the early morning and late afternoon hours, when flicker can cause problems for residents and drivers, can help alleviate the problems.
“Flicker can be mitigated,” Bettencourt said, “but some people say it can cause epileptic fits. Give me a break.” Dolan said there have been no complaints about flicker from the Wickford turbine.
Even when a turbine is well sited and its potential hazards have been well mitigated, however, there is still a potential for expensive consequences. The 336-foot turbine installed by the town of Portsmouth at its high school in 2009 has not spun since June 18, 2012, when it was rendered still by a gearbox failure, said Gary Crosby, town planner.
“We’ve spent the last year trying to figure out what to do,” he said, noting the town’s frustration over the failure of what had been a successful project. The turbine produced about $400,000 in income for the town it shut down, but the manufacturer went out of business, rendering its warranty worthless.
Portsmouth was left with three difficult options on the $3 million turbine: buy another gearbox; dismantle it and sell the scrap metal to help pay off the $2.3 million owed on the bond that financed the purchase; or form a public/private partnership to repair and continue operating the turbine.
Two previous requests for proposals for repair and operation failed to produce a deal, Crosby said, and a third was scheduled last week. Town officials were to open bids Friday and then attempt to negotiate with a contractor.
“We’re expecting two to three bids,” he said last week. “For us, it’s a financial decision. What most people want to see is getting it fixed.”
Crosby said the prospect of a turbine was not greeted negatively, largely because its location was relatively isolated.
“It was quite well received. It didn’t have to go through as rigorous a process as other towns because it was built on town-owned land,” he said, adding that the turbine is located about 700 feet away from the nearest home.
School officials have reported no problem with the sound or flicker, Crosby added.
Placement of a wind turbine in a community, he said, “really is a balance between the impacts of a big machine with financial gains. It’s something that has to be worked out.”
Marion Gold, commissioner of the state Office of Energy Resources, said her office is working the state Division of Planning and the University of Rhode Island on a set of siting guidelines likely to be announced after the State Energy Plan is completed in mid-2014. Studies of acoustics, property value impacts, and the experiences of other New England states with wind power are being factored into the effort, she said in an email last week.
“The state has supported the development of wind energy through the net-metering and distributed generation contract laws over the past several years,” she said.
With 12 commercial grade wind turbines up and running the state, Gold agreed with the Farm Bureau that farm sites would be appropriate locations for additional turbines. She said she expected the trend of a gradual increase in operational turbines to continue over the next several years, “including the pending state and federal offshore wind projects.”
Dolan, who is also a member of the Washington County Regional Planning Council, said that body has not adopted a formal stance on wind power during her two-year tenure there.
“As a council, we haven’t taken an official position. Theoretically, we’re supportive of efforts to promote alternative energy, though we haven’t endorsed a specific project yet,” she said, adding that the board also has no consensus on the Deepwater wind turbine complex proposed for the waters off Block Island.
“We all support alternative energy as long as it’s not in our backyard,” Dolan said. “I think that’s unfortunate.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding