Five years ago, Gov. Deval Patrick set an ambitious goal: He declared that by 2020 the state should develop enough wind-generated electricity to power 800,000 homes. Patrick said a quarter of that wind power should come from turbines located on Massachusetts land.
But with half the time gone, we’re still far from reaching the governor’s goal for wind power.
After Delay, Hoosac’s Built
Dec. 3, 2012, was an overcast day in Berkshire County, but that didn’t dampen Patrick’s enthusiasm. He went to the rural northwest corner of Massachusetts to mark the near-completion of the Hoosac Wind Power Project, the largest in the state – 19 huge turbines built on two mountain ridges in the towns of Monroe and Florida.
“You don’t want them everywhere, but when you think about what they’re doing in terms of a clean, renewable and reliable source of electricity, it adds to the beauty,” Patrick said. “I think they’re quite elegant.”
But when it comes to wind power, beauty is in the eye – and ear – of the beholder. Opponents sued Hoosac, calling the 330-foot-tall turbines eyesores, loud and unhealthy. The lawsuits doubled the permitting time and the initial cost estimates.
After eight years of delay, the state’s highest court settled the matter. The $90 million Hoosac wind farm was built.
And Patrick was finally able to claim Massachusetts was on its way to meeting his ambitious wind energy goal.
“When I first took office, there were three wind turbines in the commonwealth and three megawatts of wind energy capacity installed, all throughout the state,” he said. “Since then, Massachusetts has experienced one of the fastest rates of wind energy development in the whole nation – more than 30-fold increase in our wind energy capacity. In fact, more this year alone than all previous years combined.”
But in the year since Patrick gave this speech, only one new wind turbine has been built in Massachusetts. And if the governor’s ambitious goal is to be met, we’ll need a dozen wind farms the size of Hoosac.
But Paul Copleman – a spokesman for Iberdrola Renewables, which owns Hoosac – says the Spanish company has no plans to build more wind farms in Massachusetts, even though under state law utilities are required to buy an increasing share of their electricity from clean, renewable sources like wind.
NStar buys all the electricity Hoosac produces. It’s enough to power 10,000 homes a year, saving 100 million pounds of carbon dioxide annually, compared to a fossil fuel plant.
“Our fuel is free,” Copleman said. “The wind is always free, so what that enables us to do is to deliver a fixed source of power for as long as the wind is blowing. So there are very few variable costs to the operation of the facility.”
Dozens Of ‘Dead Wind’ Projects
Hoosac’s 19 turbines make it by far the largest wind farm in the state. But if Virginia Irvine has her way, it’ll also be the last.
“To be honest I thought that wind was really great myself,” she said.
That was until Boston-based First Wind announced plans to build a 10-turbine wind farm on a mountaintop in Brimfield, in Irvine’s backyard.
“I moved here for the quiet, for the rural character, and to be able to go out my backdoor, put on my cross-country skis, and go into the woods,” she said at her home.
The steady breeze on West Mountain caught First Wind’s attention in 2010 – enough wind, it estimated, to power 15,000 homes.
The company studied the site, held meetings with residents, and designed plans to erect the 400-foot-tall turbines less than a mile from Irvine’s home. She fought back, and helped organize the group called No Brimfield Wind.
But it was profit, not protesters, that sealed First Wind’s fate in Brimfield. The company pulled the plug on the project when it discovered there wasn’t enough wind on the mountain to make it financially feasible.
“Oh yeah, we won,” Irvine said. “First Wind has not, you know, put in a project in Massachusetts. They only do big projects. They went up to Maine.”
And Irvine went on to co-found Wind Wise, a statewide organization to help others fight against land-based wind projects.
Irvine says she’s not against wind farms, that they’re great in Texas and Iowa, but not Massachusetts, which ranks 35th in potential land-based wind – most along the coastline.
“It doesn’t fit,” she said. “We’re the fifth most-densely populated state in the country. And wind turbines generate very little electricity. It takes a thousand wind turbines to equal the Pilgrim nuclear plant.”
There are 44 wind projects currently operating in Massachusetts. They generate less than 0.6 percent of the state’s electricity needs and just a fifth of the terrestrial wind energy goal set by Patrick. By Irvine’s calculations, there are 49 wind projects that never got off the ground; she calls them dead wind. And 13 projects are in limbo, or still in the permitting process.
Irvine says today, there are more dead wind projects than operating ones in Massachusetts.
“You just don’t get that much bang for your buck with wind turbines,” she said.
Catherine Finneran disagrees with that. She’s a senior director with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which oversees the state wind industry and site studies.
“The fact that we have so many projects that are up and running successfully lends to the fact that we have the resources and the technology is viable here,” she said.
But Finneran offers no guarantee the governor’s 2020 goal for wind energy will be met.
“We do have projects in the pipeline,” she said. “Whether or not those will move forward and how many and what capacity that will be is really an unknown, so I think it’s hard to say at this point whether we’ll meet that.”
Today’s wind turbines are not your quaint, Dutch picture postcard models. They’re high-tech, complex industrial machines, with thousands of parts, weighing hundreds of tons, costing millions of dollars. A lot can go wrong.
Finneran acknowledges the many challenges of the emerging wind industry.
“There are going to be hiccups,” she said. “So these small number of projects have encountered things like compliance issues, larger real estate development financing concerns, some technical issues, so it’s really all over the board and not one single issue.”
Problems And Permitting
The town of Princeton had high hopes when it installed two turbines in 2010.
When the wind is blowing hard, at 24 miles an hour, the turbines are designed to provide about 60 percent of the town’s electricity at a fixed cost.
Princeton borrowed $7 million, expecting the wind turbines would pay for themselves in a few years.
“The idea looked perfect,” said Brian Allen, general manager of Princeton’s Municipal Light Department. “We had a perfect location. We had plenty of wind. This should be a no-brainer.”
Instead, it was a major headache. First, the price of electricity generated from natural gas plummeted, so Princeton couldn’t find buyers for its more expensive wind energy. Then one of the turbine gearboxes suffered a catastrophic $800,000 failure. The town sued, but the company that built them went bankrupt.
Today Princeton has the second-highest electricity rates in the state.
“Yeah, if it could go wrong, it went wrong,” Allen said. “So I’m not anti-wind. I hate to say this: Don’t do it the way we did it.”
Minuteman Wind, the wind project slated for the town of Savoy, is the largest wind project on the drawing boards in Massachusetts. It was supposed to take three years. It’s been 10.
“We thought it was a slam dunk,” said Steve Wiseman, a Minuteman Wind partner, “and we’re still working on it.”
And Minuteman is still in limbo. It has most of the state approvals it needs, and local support. What it lacks is a customer for its wind-generated electricity.
“Without a long-term contract you can’t get financing and without financing you can’t build the project,” Wiseman said.
Recently, Massachusetts utilities signed the largest long-term contracts for wind energy in the state’s history. But Minuteman didn’t get a single contract. Instead, the winning bids came from wind farms in New Hampshire and Maine.
Massachusetts wind advocates say the premium for state-generated wind power is a small price to pay to cut greenhouse gases. They charge the reason they’re not competitive is because the state’s turbine permitting process is too costly.
“There’s a joke in fact about permitting here in Massachusetts,” began George Bachrach, head of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “In other states [you have] permitting that’s quick, but uncertain. Others have a permitting process that’s long, but certain. We’re unique: We’re long and uncertain, so you don’t know where you stand forever. If we’re going to get this industry off the ground we need a more predictable, quicker permitting process.”
Over the past five years three bills designed to streamline the wind turbine permitting process have been introduced in the Legislature. All failed.
The Massachusetts wind industry has had its legal trials, technical tribulations and triumphs. But time is running out for Patrick’s ambitious goal for land-based turbines.