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Wind picks up speed

Advocates looking for turbine sites

Officials in Groton, Hopkinton, and Holliston are trying to determine which sites might be suitable for wind turbines. Officials in Groton, Hopkinton, and Holliston are trying to determine which sites might be suitable for wind turbines. (Orlin Wagner/ Associated Press/ File)
By Connie Paige
Globe Correspondent / June 7, 2009
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In line with Governor Deval Patrick's goal to ramp up the state's production of energy from alternative sources, three area communities passed new rules this spring allowing the building of wind turbines - just the start of long and potentially costly journeys to see whether wind power will work at the local level.

Now, with approval by residents in hand, officials in Groton, Holliston, and Hopkinton - and in one case a private individual hoping to start a wind farm - are looking for sites to test whether the wind is strong enough to justify construction costs, and trying to figure out how to pay for the turbines.

"This is an idea whose time has come," said Hopkinton's planning director, Elaine Lazarus.

In two other area communities this spring, Town Meeting voters turned down proposals to allow the electricity-generating devices. However, supporters of turbines in Framingham and Harvard said they were undeterred, and vowed to try again next year.

Framingham Selectwoman Ginger Esty said she believes there were too many technological questions left unanswered by the proposal in her town.

"People get frightened of things that are sticking up and making noise," she said. Esty also said that, unlike the seashore, the suburbs generally do not have winds steady and strong enough to make the turbines viable, while noting that advances in technology might make turbines workable in Framingham.

The fascination with wind power soared in January, when Patrick set a goal of building enough turbines to provide power to 800,000 homes by 2020. The idea is to replace energy generated by smokestack plants with clean, renewable power.

The notion was sweetened with the promise of federal and state grants to test the wind and help purchase and construct the turbines, which can have a price tag of up to about $4 million. Currently, 36 communities across the state have laws allowing turbines, and 15 have one or more operating, according to the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Meanwhile, officials in Northborough were awaiting word late last week about whether and where they might locate a test tower.

Officials and activists greeted the favorable Town Meeting votes on wind turbines in Groton, Holliston and Hopkinton with the thrill of young children with a new toy.

"It's very exciting," said Michelle Collette, the town planner in Groton, where a private landowner hopes to construct one or more turbines on his hilly farmland to provide power for the local municipal light company.

Steve Webber said he and his wife, Nancy, bought more than 500 acres in 2000 to keep much of it free from development. Webber said they have sold some to local farmers, kept some for their own farm, and developed a bit as a local restaurant and function center. He said they are hoping to use part of the rest for a wind farm.

About six months ago, Webber said, he helped Groton officials and two citizens groups develop the turbine bylaw proposed for April's Town Meeting.

The bylaw, which was passed unanimously, allows any turbine of 65 feet or less in height with the issuance of a building permit. The structure must be set back from the property line a distance equal to the height of the tower plus 25 feet. For turbines taller than 65 feet, the same setbacks apply, but the applicant must obtain Planning Board permission.

Kevin Kelly, manager of the Groton Electric Light Department, said the municipal utility would be interested in working out a deal with the Webbers - if the price is right. Kelly said Groton Electric already provides power much more cheaply than the area's commercial suppliers. For example, he said, a 12-month average shows National Grid customers in nearby communities paying 17.8 cents per kilowatt hour, and Unitil Corp.'s customers paying 21.4 cents, compared with Groton Electric's 11.9 cents.

Kelly said an arrangement between the Webbers and Groton Electric, which has already bought into a wind farm in Western Massachusetts, would have to keep the cost low. "We're interested in wind when it's economical as well as environmentally beneficial," he said. "I'm not going to go to the people of Groton and say you're going to have higher rates to do this."

According to the new bylaws in both Groton and Hopkinton, wind turbines must not produce a sound louder than 10 decibels above ambient noise. The sound level would be "equal to breathing or rustling leaves," Lazarus said. By comparison, she said, conversational speech is roughly 60 decibels; business office equipment, 65 decibels; and a barking dog, 75 decibels.

In Hopkinton, school officials tried last year to test one property for a wind turbine, but were told by the state that there probably wasn't enough wind there, said Rebecca L. Robak, School Committee vice chairwoman. Robak said she is still interested in pursuing the possibility of a turbine on the high school property.

This year, Lazarus said, she worked with the Planning Board and citizens groups for about nine months crafting the turbine proposal approved at last month's Town Meeting. Lazarus said no one has proposed building a wind turbine, "but we thought, moving forward, someone might want to."

Also last month, Holliston Town Meeting overwhelmingly approved amending the accessory structures bylaw to allow freestanding noncommercial wind-energy systems, said the town planner, Karen Sherman.

The challenge, said Holliston Planning Board member Warren B. Chamberlain, was to allow alternative energy sources but ensure the town kept control of the process.

"We're trying to create zoning laws that make it possible for people to explore these avenues, but also keep a handle on it so everybody doesn't go crazy," he said.

Meanwhile, Robert S. Giles, a citizen activist who cochairs the Northborough Wind Committee, said last week that he was expecting to hear whether the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a state development agency that provides support for renewable-energy projects, would grant the town $40,000 to $60,000 for a feasibility study for locating a wind turbine at one of three local sites.

The study, which could take a year or more, would determine whether the wind is sufficient to justify a turbine - a prerequisite for the state's help in paying for it. He said the state then could provide $450,000 to $600,000 toward the cost of the turbine.

Giles said if Northborough appears to be a good spot for a windmill, he is cautiously optimistic the town would foot the bill. "We're looking at it as positive right now, but it's too early to tell," he said.

In Framingham and Harvard, wind turbine supporters were disappointed but not giving up.

Framingham's Town Meeting voted to send the measure to the Planning Board for further study. Tom Mahoney, a Planning Board member and one of the champions of turbines, said proponents will "refine" the proposal for next year.

In Harvard, a majority at Town Meeting voted to take no action on the proposal to set requirements for wind-turbine projects.

A member of Harvard's Planning Board, Kara M. Minar, said she believes the proposed bylaw failed because wind-power proponents felt it was too restrictive. However, Minar said, municipal officials must take into consideration concerns by many residents that the turbines would create noise and hazards, and ruin the town's pastoral scenery.

"If you've got a view to Mount Wachusett, that's part of your property value, so you're not going to want to see a tower," she said.

John Sweeney, among the Harvard residents backing the proposal, said it became " a very emotional issue, and I'm trying to find the best way to get around that."

Connie Paige can be reached at connie_paige@yahoo.com.