Wind farms stir up trouble in the hills


Wind turbines may be a source of renewable energy, but they also generate strong feelings. That’s what William Hubbard learned from his two-year fight to build a 12-megawatt wind farm – small by industry standards – in Fitchburg. The Applied Wind Technology developer says that in December the city took him to district court, forcing him to remove a portable 170-foot crane needed for wind testing. While he could appeal, Hubbard says his detractors would stop at nothing and slowly drain him dry. He estimates having spent about $1 million, counting lawyers’ and contractors’ fees, for an eight-turbine wind farm that will never be. Hubbard describes it as a war of attrition.

“It only takes one person,” he says. “All they have to do is whip up a bunch of hysteria.”

William Hubbard says “hysteria”
doomed his Fitchburg wind farm.

The Fitchburg proposal was never as controversial as Cape Wind’s plan to build a 430-megawatt wind farm in Cape Cod’s Horseshoe Shoal, which – although opposed by Gov. Mitt Romney and other powerful officials, including US Sen. Edward Kennedy – recently cleared a regulatory hurdle by winning approval from the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board. But it may be more typical of battles to come.

In his case, Hubbard complains that the state failed to abide by its own alternative energy plan, specifically the renewable portfolio standard (RPS) established as part of the Electric Utility Restructuring Act, passed by the Legislature in 1997. That standard requires that by 2009, 4 percent of electric energy will come from solar, wind, and other forms of renewable energy.

Hubbard says that if the state lawmakers were really interested in getting wind technology off the ground, they would streamline zoning laws to make it easier to build wind farms. He suggests a “rational” solution, one that favors the overall good over local resistance – much like zoning rules that govern the placement of cell phone towers. And he says there will always be resistance.

“All they see is the great big tower,” he says. “In their mind, everything is going to hell.”

Seth Kaplan, director of the nonprofit Conservation Law Foundation’s clean energy and climate change program, agrees that the state has not been as aggressive as it could be about meeting the RPS mandate.

“Unless we get a lot more serious about building real renewable energy facilities, we’re not going to be able to reach our goals,” Kaplan says. The Cape Wind Project could help meet those standards, he says. “We need a project of that size, scale, and type.” But smaller wind power projects have their place, too, he says, as long as the barriers to building them – legal or otherwise – don’t make the cost prohibitive. “They’re a very important piece in the puzzle,” says Kaplan.

David Cash, director of air policy for the state’s Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, says the state has in fact been working to reach those standards. In recent months, Cash has been meeting with wind technology stakeholders in brainstorming sessions across the state. While still in the early stages, he says, such meetings could help in the creation of performance standards for wind farms and model bylaws for communities.

“We’re hoping to make it easier in the future for projects like that,” he says, referring to the Fitchburg wind farm.

The best way to beat the not-in-my backyard mentality is education, says Greg Watson, vice president for sustainable development at the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a quasi-public agency. MTC, which is charged with developing renewable energy in the context of helping to boost the state’s “innovation economy,” runs a program called Community Wind that provides technical help to municipalities. Watson says the major obstacle to wind technology is finding a receptive place for them.

“Wind technology is a victim of the fact that you can see [it],” he says. “With wind, you’ve got to place it where the wind blows. You don’t have a choice.” If other energy generators were held to the same standards as wind farms are, says Watson, people wouldn’t be able to turn on their lights.

But Eleanor Tillinghast, president of the conservation group Green Berkshires, says that research finds very little value in wind technology. She started out in favor of wind technology, she says, but after more investigation decided it wasn’t worth it. “It produces very, very little power and causes tremendous damage,” she says, adding that there are better and cheaper ways to produce renewable energy.

According to Tillinghast, wind farm turbines – typically about 340 feet, or 34 stories, high – can eat up hundreds of acres, destroy local plant species, and disrupt bird migration. They can also create safety hazards such as ice hurl – ice that forms on turbine blades and is shot outward. Tillinghast also fears that the lion’s share of wind farms other than Cape Wind will end up in the Berkshires, resulting in more than 200 turbines dotting the horizon.

“That’s why we’re concerned out here,” she says. “We’re not a lot of voters. We don’t have a lot of power.”

Some Berkshire residents are not so worried. Florida town administrator Sue Brown describes the Hoosac Wind Power Project, one of the earliest proposed after the 1997 reform law, as a learn-as-you-go experience. The project, which straddles the border between Florida and Monroe, is set to include 20 wind turbines. The town signed a lease with wind technology company enXco so that it could start construction this year, Brown says. The strongest remaining opponents seem to be an organization called the Group of 10, which has expressed concern that enXco has not taken enough precautions to protect certain plant species.

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Still, residents seem to have taken to Hoosac Wind. Two years ago, the town had a nonbinding ballot question that returned a 75 percent vote in favor of the project.

“I think the biggest thing people need to be is as honest with the public as they can,” says Brown. “Provide as much information as possible so everybody is informed.”

Stacie N. Galang is a writer living in West Newton.