VINALHAVEN – Sally and David Wylie are having an addition built onto their island vacation home. A patio door admits views of the woods and water, but the sunny, southern exposure has no windows. That south wall is a foot thick, and stuffed with sound-deadening insulation.
“On a bad day, we can get away from it,” David Wylie said. The Wylies are creating an acoustic cocoon for their new bedroom to get away from the “whomp, whomp, whomp,” the airplane-like drone and the low-frequency resonation that they experience periodically from the three massive wind turbines that are clearly visible from their deck.
“We moved out here for the peace and quiet,” Sally Wylie said. “We didn’t want any of this and we’re very sad.”
Five years ago this November, the residents of Vinalhaven and North Haven became part of an alternative energy experiment that drew national attention. Burdened by high electric rates, they erected New England’s largest coastal wind project, a proud achievement for a small island community, 12 miles out to sea from Rockland.
Today, the Fox Islands Wind Project is the tallest structure in Penobscot Bay. Standing higher than a football field is long, 388 feet from ground to blade tip, the turbines are visible from miles away.
For people who glimpse them on the horizon, for passengers on the ferry between Rockland and Vinalhaven, for neighbors who live in their shadows, the turbines have become a powerful symbol.
But a symbol of what?
Are they a national model for community-based, renewable energy development? Is the $15 million project a success story of how rural residents came together to finance and build a wind farm that now provides 60 percent of their power?
Or are the towers an emblem of wind energy’s shortcomings? Is this a cautionary tale of how turbine noise from a project built too close to homes continues to tear apart a community’s tranquility?
There are no firm answers, nearly five years on.
Technical issues that surround these questions are tangled up in lawsuits. In March, a lower court ruling on whether the turbines are being operated in compliance with state environmental laws was appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. A decision could be months away, and it remains to be seen whether or how a practical resolution will emerge from the complex, legal wrangling.
Meanwhile, two points are worth noting.
Overall electric rates have stabilized but have not fallen, although, predictably, there’s disagreement on the numbers. The 1,700-member Fox Islands Electric Cooperative, which operates the project, has data to show that average, total costs are about the same as in 2008. Neighbors, meanwhile, say energy rates are up 128 percent since 2009, and they dispute the co-op’s math.
Any analysis is muddled by volatile prices for natural gas, which fuels half the power plants in New England, as well as increasing electric transmission rates. Also, the tiny power co-op has accumulated $1 million in legal and regulatory fees. Those costs have been passed on to customers in rates. And expenses are bound to increase, as the legal battle rolls on.
It’s also noteworthy that none of Maine’s 14 other year-round island communities has followed Vinalhaven’s lead. Despite some interest, none has built a wind farm or is expected to do so in the near future.
WHY ELECTRIC BILLS ARE VOLATILE
Expectations for island wind in Maine were high on a breezy November day in 2009, when more than 400 people gathered to celebrate the project by cutting a green ribbon. Schoolchildren from Vinalhaven and North Haven passed out pinwheels, and classes performed a version of “I’m a Great Big Turbine,” sung to the tune of “I’m a Little Teapot.”
Dignitaries applauded and gave speeches. Then-Gov. John Baldacci said one of the turbines reminded him of the Statue of Liberty, in that it represented energy independence. Former Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree, who grew up on North Haven, called the venture a huge step toward sustainability for Maine’s year-round islands.
“This project is only the beginning,” she said.
In some ways, wind is a natural fit for Vinalhaven and North Haven, where sea breezes powered vessels to move early settlers, as well as granite, wood and fish. To harness wind energy in the 21st century, though, island residents had to overcome some modern-day obstacles.
Maine winds blow strongest during the winter, when island populations and power demand are low. Wind is weakest in summer, just when power is needed most. Fortunately, an eight-year-old undersea cable lets the co-op import power in summer and sell excess to the New England grid in winter.
This arrangement results in monthly electric bills that are confounding, by mainland standards. Energy rates rise and fall with the wind and the price of natural gas. Last January, high gas prices and strong breezes helped the co-op sell its renewable energy at a premium. That translated into super-low energy costs. But when the opposite is true, energy rates can nearly triple. Overall, they’re more expensive than mainland rates, but Chip Harrington, the co-op’s general manager, says he’s hopeful that the rising cost of natural gas, demand for renewable energy and the eventual end of litigation expenses will narrow the gap in the coming years.
THE EFFORT TO BE RESPONSIBLE
Wind-energy opponents in Maine are used to jousting with out-of-state, corporate titans, but Harrington and the co-op are unusual adversaries. The co-op’s small, storefront office looks like it could be a bakery or village tourist shop. Boxes of Milk-Bone biscuits sit on the counter for dog-loving customers who stop by to pay their bills in person, as several do.
In an upstairs conference room, Harrington set out a seven-year chart of electric charges and patiently compared the various and complicated, before-wind and after-wind costs that drive rates. Part of the equation is $1 million in legal fees, which Harrington said is adding two pennies to each kilowatt-hour.
In Harrington’s opinion, the co-op has made a strong effort to operate a responsible project. The site is among the best on the island for wind. The co-op spent $300,000 to buy two properties and one house that were very near the turbine site. It had General Electric, the turbine maker, serrate the blade tips in 2011, in an attempt to reduce noise. It has slowed the blade speed at certain times, which muffles sound a bit but costs money in lost output.
Beyond that, Harrington said the wind farm is operating as it was designed and complies with state laws. Some neighbors just aren’t satisfied, he said, and he’s not sure how to solve that conflict.
“I think it has been a really good project,” he said. “The economics aren’t perfect because of factors that the courts will resolve eventually. When it’s settled, with the market for (renewable energy) improving, the rates will come down.”
‘A MISTAKE WAS MADE’
But lower rates will likely come at the expense of some residents. They feel their property rights and entitlement to peace and quiet in their rural homes have been sacrificed in the process.
Roughly two dozen homeowners have banded together in a loosely organized group called Fox Islands Wind Neighbors. They have a website and have hired a lawyer to pursue their contention that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and its commissioner, Patty Aho, wrongly allowed the co-op to keep operating the wind farm, despite noise levels that exceed state standards. This is the chief issue in court.
Alan Farago lives across the road from the Wylies. Like others near the turbine site, he has become a reluctant student of wind-energy physics. He can speak at length about wind shear, the condition in which wind speed and direction differ greatly up at the turbine blades, compared to down on the ground. He knows which weather conditions create the most noise at his house.
“If these turbines can’t be run in compliance during all conditions, then they need to be turned down,” Farago said. “We hope the Supreme (Judicial) Court decision will point in that direction.”
Farago has been visiting the island in summers since 1977. He and his wife own 140 acres near the turbines, an investment that he now fears is diminished. In a larger sense, he said, the project holds a lesson for community wind ventures – that they shouldn’t be built anywhere near homes. But on Vinalhaven, he said, where self-reliance and community pride loom large, people are hesitant to recognize that an injustice has been done.
“It’s hard for people to acknowledge that a mistake was made,” he said.
VINALHAVEN AS A MODEL
Locally owned, community wind projects are growing in New England, according to Sue Jones, president of Community Energy Partners in Freeport. In her view, they are similar to cellphone towers 15 years ago – siting was controversial at first, but people got used to them and the industry got better at making them blend into the landscape.
“We will continue to learn from our mistakes and learn how to make these turbines more livable in our communities,” Jones said. “It’s a natural process.”
Jones pointed out that noise from wind turbines is very site-specific. Hull, Massachusetts, for instance, put up the state’s first wind turbine in 2001. It gained enough acceptance that a second one was erected in 2005. By contrast, residents who live near a two-turbine project in Falmouth, Massachusetts, began complaining of headaches and other health problems soon after the blades began spinning in 2010. Voters turned down a measure last year to dismantle the project, but the issue isn’t settled.
On Vinalhaven and North Haven, most residents are proud of their wind project, although they recognize not everyone feels that way, according to Suzanne MacDonald, community energy director at the Island Institute in Rockland. The group was instrumental in creating support and offering technical assistance for the project.
Whatever its failings, the Fox Islands Wind Project has become a conversation starter that has led other island communities to explore ways to reduce their energy reliance on the mainland, MacDonald said. Some of those explorations involved wind. Peaks Island found wind wasn’t economically viable. Many Monhegan residents have come to oppose an offshore wind demonstration project that might someday be built within sight of the island. Swans Island decided to stay with mainland power, for various reasons. In each case, there was an awareness of the problems on Vinalhaven, MacDonald agreed, but it didn’t drive the decision to reject wind.
“I think Vinalhaven was a model for discussions on Peaks, Monhegan and Swans from a process perspective,” she said. “But the results were different, because the islands are different.”
For better or worse, though, Vinalhaven has embraced wind. Good intentions have created winners and losers, and it’s hard to imagine how any court ruling will fundamentally change that.
At the electric co-op, Harrington is trying to look ahead. Because winds are lighter when demand is highest, Harrington is sizing up the potential for a solar-electric project on land owned by the co-op. Solar panels work best in Maine during the summer, when demand peaks. In winter, the wind farm would generate excess power to sell on the mainland.
“It would be a good balance,” he said.
It also would be quiet.