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The wild west of wind

The temptation of saving thousands of dollars in electricity costs prompted dozens of Massachusetts communities to invest in green energy technology in recent years, but cities and towns are realizing that no energy consumption comes without a price.

Unanticipated impacts of shadow flicker and noise have caused tensions in some communities where turbines were initially welcomed. In others, mechanical failures are testing taxpayers’ patience and stretching municipal budgets.

The lesson that so many local communities are learning as they attempt to harness green energy and slash spending is that there is no simple solution. With one added benefit comes a hidden cost and as municipalities attempt to pioneer the wild west of wind power, they are finding that some things are too good to be true.

In Hanover, taxpayers approved $1 million between 2008 and 2009 to build a modest turbine at the town’s water treatment facility. The treatment plant spends more than $120,000 annually in electricity costs and officials promised a turbine could save taxpayers $50,000 to $60,000 a year. Nearly six years later, taxpayers are still footing that $120,000 per year electricity bill and the turbine stands dormant on Pond Street, a victim of mismanagement and mechanical malfunction.

The town blames much of the mechanical failures on the turbine contractor, Lumus, a Wilmington-based construction firm, but with multiple south shore wind projects grabbing headlines for unanticipated and unfinanced impacts, cities and towns should be looking to the state for guidance.

“As with anything new, there is always a learning curve,” said Troy Clarkson, town manager. “So many communities have experienced and are experiencing problems, that I think the most important issue is a public policy issue.”

Municipalities are bound by state law to award capital contracts to companies with the lowest bids, but the old adage, “you get what you pay for,” rings true.

Although municipalities have a duty to taxpayers to keep costs low, they also have a duty to update infrastructure responsibly. In the wild west of wind, many cities and towns are finding themselves in uncharted territory. They do not have the staff or the resources to adequately evaluate, understand and award bids for wind turbines and solar fields.

Hanover is hardly the only Massachusetts community to grapple with the unanticipated costs of wind energy. In Falmouth, residents rebelled against two turbines only after they were installed at the town’s wastewater treatment plant, stating that the noise was too much for local residents.

A similar problem plagued a Kingston wind development where noise and flicker from the blades of four turbines became a cause of concern for residents.

In Princeton, the town is struggling with mechanical defects after installing two turbines in 2010, costing the town upwards of $1 million.

These experiences and failures spurred the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to launch its Community Wind Energy Initiative in 2013. It offers more comprehensive municipal support, guidelines on acoustic policy, comprehensive siting support and monitors the impacts of operating wind projects.

Unfortunately it often takes the failures of some to inspire public policy that will protect the many.