Last Wednesday, the New England Wind Energy Education Project held a webinar entitled “Wind Power as a Neighbor: Experience with Techniques for Mitigating Public Impacts.” For those already embroiled in controversies over existing turbines (a thinly veiled reference to the situation here in Falmouth, MA, as well as a handful of other communities around New England) there were few revelations on offer. But a recurring theme – one that has not, to my knowledge, featured prominently in wind development deals around the Cape – was the power of money.
Nothing made this point more clearly than John Knab’s story of wind energy development in Sheldon, NY, where he has served seven terms as Town Supervisor. Much of what Knab had to say wasn’t terribly applicable to southeastern Massachusetts. Sheldon is a town of 2,550 and “twice as many dairy cows.” There’s lots of space to work with – not a common situation hereabouts. To give you an idea of the difference in scale, a private developer installed 75 turbines in Sheldon; some of the larger proposals on and around the Cape have involved seven or eight turbines.
But the interesting part was the financial arrangement the town negotiated with the developer. Not to be crass, but they milked Invernergy good – a huge up-front payment to the town, annual payments to neighbors, school and park improvements, the list went on and on – and still Knab says he thinks they should have pushed harder for more money from the developer! Town officials everywhere, are you listening?
But back to the webinar. Charles Newcomb, from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, provided an overview of impact mitigation strategies for the pre- and post-installation phases, while Nils Bolgen from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center went over several case studies in New England, including Falmouth. Together, they provided a nice picture of what is and isn’t working.
At the pre-installation phase, the strategies recommended for making wind turbines good neighbors were pretty commonsensical: design quieter, slower-moving, more aesthetically pleasing wind turbines and site them appropriately (aye, there’s the rub). Of course, putting any of that to practical use is difficult. What constitutes “appropriate” siting is currently anybody’s best guess. And towns or, for that matter, developers aren’t typically the ones designing and manufacturing turbines. But Newcomb did say that modern turbines are, as a rule, much quieter than their predecessors.
Both Newcomb and Bolgen also noted that communities with neighbor buy-in (by which I literally mean paying neighbors either a standard amount or a portion of the profits) tend to experience fewer complaints. Wind energy opponents have argued that this is often because the payment contracts include prohibitions against complaints or legal action. But other analysts cite studies showing that those with a financial stake in a project are more tolerant of possible impacts.
After a turbine(s) has been installed, fixing problematic technology or siting is far more difficult, as communities like Falmouth, MA, and Vinalhaven, ME, know all too well. While turbine manufacturers will often modify turbines to reduce mechanical noise (gears grinding, pieces of metal thumping around, that sort of thing), the main source of complaints about large turbines is actually aerodynamic noise – swooshing and whumping noises made by the blades as they pass through the air. For those suffering under the blades of a GE turbine, Newcomb offered one ray of hope: GE is currently testing a retrofit - akin to a long row of combs attached to the back edge of each blade – that could significantly reduce aerodynamic noise.
Otherwise, communities grappling with problematic turbines are left with only options that Newcomb refers to as “last ditch” because of their costs – curtailing operation, moving them, or just shutting them down and getting rid of them altogether. All of those are currently on the table here in Falmouth, giving a sense of just how desperate things have gotten.
As the webinar wound down, I found myself asking one question: just how powerful is money? If paying neighbors a cut can prevent their displeasure, could it do as much after the fact? It’s one option Falmouth hasn’t explored yet.