John Sweeney knows the benefits of catching the wind.
The Harvard resident's 35-foot sailboat, moored at Buzzards Bay, is outfitted with a 10-foot-tall, 200-watt wind turbine that powers electronics and other on-board equipment during jaunts to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.
"We sit and watch movies and use the laptop," he says, "just on the power of the wind."
It's a clean-energy alternative Sweeney and other residents hope will soon become a possibility in their hometown. At Harvard's annual Town Meeting Saturday, voters will be asked to approve a bylaw that would allow residents to erect wind turbines for individual, accessory use.
The decision is being watched in a number of other municipalities in Massachusetts that are mulling or have considered how best to harvest wind power in response to escalating energy costs and increased worries about carbon footprints. Currently, officials in Hamilton, Hull, and Salem, among others, are exploring new or additional windmills for townwide use; administrators in Boston, Hudson, and Newburyport are considering bylaw or zoning changes that would allow accessory turbines. In this area, Andover has had a longstanding bylaw allowing residents to erect accessory windmills through special permits.
Harvard's proposed regulation arose out of separate applications over the past year by Sweeney and Harvard farmer Steve Nigzus to construct windmills on their properties. Local officials initially denied both requests, but Nigzus's denial was later overturned by the Zoning Board of Appeals, which ruled that a turbine was an agricultural exemption.
In response to the requests - and to recognize what it felt was a growing desire for clean energy - the Planning Board appointed a seven-member committee last October to explore the viability of wind. Known as the wind energy conversion systems committee, the group held public forums, researched wind power, and made a list of regulation recommendations that it offered the Planning Board in January.
From those suggestions, the planning authority drafted a bylaw, but members ultimately voted not to proceed with it at their meeting Feb. 25. The systems committee continued forward, submitting its own version through a citizens' petition that required 10 signatures.
"We want to discuss it, hear what people's concerns are, see if we can address them," said Sweeney. "It's an opportunity for us to change where we get our energy from."
Under the proposed bylaw, any tower taller than 140 feet would require a special permit from the Planning Board; setbacks from property lines would be equal to the height of the turbine; and the noise generated by the windmills could not exceed 10 A-weighted decibels - roughly equivalent to the sound of rustling leaves.
The committee also recommended that towers undergo periodic inspections; that lighting them be prohibited; and that owners be required to maintain the turbines, erect fences around them, and mitigate visual impact through landscaping and nonreflecting paint. Additional decrees allow windmills to be removed if they go unused for two years or if they are found to be structurally dangerous.
But even with a bylaw allowing turbines for individual use, there will be limits on their use in Harvard, officials say. Don't expect a full-scale farm to crop up in town along its windiest ridges.
"Nobody's going to put the Cape Wind Farm up on Prospect Hill," said Ruth Silman, chairwoman of the systems committee. "We know that that is not what Harvard is interested in."
Similarly, only certain areas will even have enough wind to power a turbine, as Harvard is inland and heavily populated with trees.
"It's very site-dependent," said Mary Essary, chairwoman of the Planning Board. "Wind is not a huge resource here. This is really about small-scale, distributed wind generation."
The two areas with the strongest and most consistent gusts are Oak Hill and Prospect Hill, where breezes come from the west and southwest. Given that, Nigzus considers himself lucky to be able to capture the wind. He runs his 12.5-acre hay, honey, and egg farm on the latter ridge, which experiences average gusts of 8 to 12 miles an hour.
By late spring, he is hoping to erect a 120-foot turbine made of galvanized steel. Costing between $40,000 and $60,000, it will provide 60 percent of his farm's power needs, he surmises.
"Wind is clean, and it intrigues me," he said. "It's a nice way to generate power, and it doesn't harm the environment."
And windmills, he added, are "also kind of pretty when they're turning."
But not everyone agrees that windmills are attractive.
Cape Cod residents, for instance, have long fought a proposed offshore wind farm that would stretch 130 turbines across 25 square miles of Nantucket Sound. They feel it would clutter their ocean view and adversely affect animal life, the environment, and fishermen, according to the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.
Abutters to the 28-turbine wind farm in Mars Hill, Maine, meanwhile, have complained about the endless whooshing sound.
Naturalists in other areas have pointed to notable rates of bird deaths caused by the whirring devices.
Silman acknowledged such concerns, but said people need to keep perspective: No one likes to look at or live near coal-burning or nuclear power plants, either. The importance of clean energy, she asserted, "transcends what things look like."
"Global warming and climate change have to be addressed," she said. "Every single person has to be willing to be a team player."