Forward, one puff at a time
While large wind projects are mired in red tape in the Bay State, smaller efforts are gaining traction, raising hope for renewable energy advocates
Big wind may be in big trouble. But small wind has never been so popular.
As Massachusetts officials and energy companies push to ramp up wind-powered electric generation as a less polluting, potentially cheaper source of energy, the largest wind proposals in the state are all mired in political and regulatory controversy: the 140-tower Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound, the 20-tower Hoosac Wind in the Berkshire hills, and a proposed Buzzards Bay wind farm that's still nascent but already setting off alarms among local residents concerned about visual and marine impacts.
Beyond those high-profile wind controversies, however, a growing movement of small-scale wind power - typified by the new single turbine that went into service last month at the Jiminy Peak ski resort in the westernmost Massachusetts town of Hancock - seems to be gathering critical mass and momentum.
From Orleans on Cape Cod and Manchester-by-the-Sea to Chester and Savoy in the Berkshire hills, officials now count more than 50 different local wind proposals in various stages of development, from actual turbine sites under construction to local communities taking state aid to study whether and where they could host wind power.
After trimming the size and moving the location to accommodate Federal Aviation Administration concerns about threats to planes flying in to the Barnstable Municipal Airport, Cape Cod Community College this month will move ahead on choosing a contractor to install a new turbine as soon as next year. Holy Name Catholic High School in Worcester hopes to have its own turbine up and running next year.
The state even has its first wind power redevelopment site, in the Central Massachusetts community of Princeton, where the town electric department late last month ceremonially broke ground on a project replacing eight 40-kilowatt turbines first installed in the 1980s with two 1,500-kilowatt units. The new turbines, when up and running next year, will generate 40 percent of the town's power.
"It's taken a while, but wind is really poised to boom in Massachusetts," said Ian A. Bowles, state secretary of energy and environmental affairs. This fall, Bowles is pushing to have state government - including independent agencies like the Turnpike Authority and Water Resources Authority - complete an inventory of all state-owned sites that could be conducive to wind turbines and set up a process to "pre-permit" them for private companies to install wind generators.
Governor Deval Patrick's administration and House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi are also both pushing for changes in utility regulation laws that would make it easier for homeowners and businesses to install their own small-scale generating units - including rooftop solar panels and backyard windmills - that could feed surplus electricity back into the regional grid. "Today's policies," Bowles said, "are not conducive to wind."
State policies call for Massachusetts utilities to double from 2005 to 2009, to 4 percent, the volume of electricity they get from so-called renewable sources like solar, generators that run on wood or landfill gas, or wind power. Whether the state will come anywhere close to meeting that goal is a big question, but most environmental leaders agree that a big jump in wind power will be key.
Today, just four commercial-scale wind projects are running in Massachusetts - the Hancock unit, two in Hull, and turbines at the Local 103 electricians' union hall in Dorchester and Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne - that collectively generate 4.8 megawatts of electricity, only enough for 3,600 typical homes. That's roughly one-50th of what Massachusetts will need to meet the renewable standard.
"The small projects are important in two ways," said Warren Leon, director of the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust, a Westborough quasipublic organization that distributes grants for wind and other projects from a small tax added to electric bills since 2000. "If you have enough of them, they do add up. Also, for most people, it's an unknown technology. Getting a few of them up around the state," Leon said, "allows people to see it and decide what they think" about complaints voiced about the visual impacts of tall, spinning turbines and low-level whooshing sound the turbines create.
One hurdle to wider deployment of wind Leon said he'd like to find a way to overcome is that currently the state's 40 municipal light departments can't get grants from the renewable energy trust without deal-killing strings attached because their customers by law don't pay the "green energy" tax. Leon said he hopes legislators will work out ways for the town-owned electric cooperatives to opt in to paying into and getting grants from the fund.
Persuading residents that a 400-foot-tall wind turbine can be a good neighbor is much easier when, as in Princeton where residents own their utility, it's directly feeding them power, not reaping revenues for a remote energy company. "When you can actually connect a community to the electricity, then it's a much easier sell," Jonathan Fitch, Princeton municipal light manager, said in an interview at the site on the back of Mount Wachusett where the two turbines are to be built by late 2008. Even in Princeton, it took six years of town reviews and overcoming legal challenges to get the project done.
Another new way of promoting wind power here may be as a vehicle for preserving local agriculture. In Wareham, four cranberry bog owners have teamed up with Beaufort Windpower LLC, a Boston wind-farm development company, to put up two meteorological test towers at sites near Interstate 195 and get the town to approve a zoning bylaw for wind turbines. Assuming the test towers prove the areas suitable, project proponents envision as many as 5 to 10 turbines scattered among multiple sites that can help cranberry farmers afford to keep their land as bogs, not subdivisions.
Seth Kaplan, senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, a Boston environmental group, said he is encouraged by signs of progress for small-scale community-based wind. "The bottom line is, we need all this, and more," Kaplan said. "We need a tremendous amount of renewable energy all around us, and the major thing impeding us from reaping that resource is political will."
Peter J. Howe can be reached at email@example.com.