Heavy winds can delay some outdoor ventures. But when the Chilmark planning board meets on Monday, they will hope for wind. On the agenda is a site visit to at least one of the two residential wind turbines which have gone up in town in the past two months.
On April 18, Gary Harcourt, who owns and manages Great Rock Windpower, flipped the switch on what he believes is the first residential grid-tied wind turbine on the Vineyard. The turbine is located on Emily Bramhall’s property off North Road. A similar turbine powers Mr. Harcourt’s Oak Bluffs office, but he considers it a business turbine, not residential.
There were some initial glitches — a part had to be replaced — but by mid-May, Ms. Bramhall’s turbine was operational. In the month of May, it produced 470 kilowatt hours of energy. “She’s been making a ton of power,” Mr. Harcourt said this week.
The average family home in the United States uses 800 kilowatt hours per month. If her average usage is about the same, the turbine would have cut Ms. Bramhall’s electric bill by more than half last month. And on an Island where the price of electricity is one of the highest in the nation, this is significant. “We pay around 22 cents per kilowatt hour. There are people in other parts of the country, the Midwest and the South, who are paying less than half that,” Mr. Harcourt said.
On May 17, he turned on a second turbine at the Chilmark home of Robert and Happy Green off Old Farm Road. Three more turbines are in the works in West Tisbury, Mr. Harcourt reported. One will go up in the next few weeks.
Both Chilmark turbines, which cost roughly $45,000 to purchase and install, are 105 feet. The blades add another nine feet to their total height. A series of stays skirt the towers and brace them.
The turbines tie directly into the power grid. “When it is not windy, you use the power from the grid like you would normally. When it is windy, and you’re not using power, the meter spins backward and makes up for that power you use,” Mr. Harcourt explained. Turbine owners can expect to see payback within 10 to 15 years, depending on the cost of electricity and the amount of wind power tapped, he said.
“Maybe with the Al Gore movie, the price of oil going through the roof — it’s more than doubled over the past year — I think people are just realizing all of a sudden we’re at a tipping point. We have to do something. And it’s available now. Small wind power has been available for forever, but as far as being grid-tied, the technology is fairly recent,” Mr. Harcourt said.
The process to install a turbine is cumbersome. When they decided to build one, the Greens applied for a rebate from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which paid $11,000 toward the total cost of the turbine. But to receive the grant, they had to purchase workers compensation insurance and liability insurance.
Last fall, the Greens went before the Chilmark zoning board of appeals in a public hearing. They needed a building permit from the town and were required to notify abutters of their plans. Although it was not required, the Greens also sent a letter to the Old Farm Road Association so all of their neighbors would be informed.
Turbines, although beneficial to their owners, can interrupt views and their sound, a low whirring, can sometimes be heard from nearby properties. After the Greens sent letters of notification, a number of their neighbors wrote to the Chilmark board of appeals both for and against the project. In response to some of the complaints, the Greens relocated the site of their turbine.
After their turbine went up at the end of last month, more letters came in to town officials.
“Makes a low discernible droning noise with the flutter of blades in gusts,” wrote Nathan Wilson of Old Farm Road. “This tower obstructs the views from our living room, the deck, our bedroom, the bedroom over the living room and our front yard. We do not see only the top few feet of the tower. We see essentially the whole thing,” wrote Paul R. Grand, also of Old Farm Road.
In a letter addressed to the zoning board, the planning board and the board of selectmen, Old Farm Road resident Jeffrey Herman wrote: “I am saddened that further consideration was not given to the visual impact of permitting such a huge structure by a town that has always — and justifiably — prided itself on carefully monitoring any building that would have an impact on neighbors and indeed on the community as a whole.”
The complaints have caused the planning board to question whether the current approval process for wind turbines is sufficient. Zoning bylaws now allow for the construction of windmills on condition that their height and location do not interfere with the rights of abutters to enjoy their property.
The planning board site visit on Monday will be the first step in exploring the issue. In the future, the board plans to hold a public hearing on whether more stringent guidelines are needed. And when they release a master plan survey to town voters in July, questions regarding renewable energy sources will be included.
“We want to continue to get feedback from the townspeople,” said planning board chairman Rich Osnoss. “We believe in the possibility of doing something green and energy conscious, but we want to make sure that the townspeople are all in favor of it.”
The issue was also cause for debate in a selectmen’s meeting last month. “There ought to be standards,” selectman J. B. Riggs Parker said at a May 20 meeting. “We have a master plan which says we’re going to try to preserve the rural atmosphere of the community and if we have one of these every three acres, we’ve turned it into an industrial rural nature.”
“Just because it’s visible does not mean it’s detrimental,” executive secretary Tim Carroll said at the meeting.
After hearing some of the complaints from her neighbors, Mary Breslauer, a resident of Old Farm Road, clerk of the neighborhood road association and longtime resident of Chilmark, agreed it might be time to revisit the issue.
“What has emerged is this sort of broader question about the impact of windmills to distant neighbors,” she said. “It’s worth the town considering, in terms of windmills, whether they should expand the bylaw.”