Wind turbines are coming.
That statement is not just a hopeful vision for a cleaner and more efficient energy future — it is also a statement of fact. It is happening, and happening quickly.
Our newly inaugurated chief executive wants more electricity from renewable energy. In his inaugural address, President Obama declared that we must harness “the sun and the winds” to power our lives. Our governor wants more wind power. Deval Patrick has set a goal for the state to generate 2,000 megawatts of wind power by the year 2020.
This political call to action is being met with entrepreneurial fervor. The number and capacity of wind turbines in the United States is growing at an astonishing rate. Electricity from wind turbines grew nationwide by an average of 29 per cent each year from 2002-2007, according to the leading industry group.
Considering our current economic crisis, exponential growth in almost any industry is welcome news. Considering our current energy and climate crisis, it is certainly encouraging that this rapid expansion is happening in clean energy.
With any rapidly expanding industry, smart management and regulation are crucial. It is not in anyone’s interest — the public’s or the industry’s — to have unchecked growth. On the other hand, it is not a good idea to stifle an emerging field that is creating jobs and producing electricity without the traditionally associated carbon emissions. But one town on the Vineyard is in danger of doing just that.
At a meeting in January, the West Tisbury planning board proposed a zoning bylaw amendment that will place aggressive restrictions on wind turbines. Instead of providing guidance to ensure well-placed wind turbines, these regulations will create a daunting financial barrier to residential wind power in West Tisbury.
The proposed regulations will be on the warrant for the annual town meeting in April.
Some parts of the proposed wind regulations make a lot of sense. The proposed regulations identify required setbacks from property lines and noise levels and require compliance with FAA regulations, the building code and the National Electrical Code. These are smart and essential building blocks to well-planned wind turbine placement.
The regulations become onerous, however, when describing the paperwork that must be completed before obtaining a wind turbine special permit.
A wind turbine applicant in West Tisbury must provide a site plan showing “existing vegetation, including average height of trees and any proposed vegetation removal on the subject property or abutting properties,” a “topographic map of the area within 2,000 feet” of the site, a “written narrative” that describes “technical, economic, environmental details, and other reasons for the proposed location, height and design,” and an analysis from an engineer or equivalent entity to demonstrate that the noise level will be acceptable.
The economics of residential wind turbines are already daunting. Residential wind turbines cost approximately $3,000 to $5,000 for every kilowatt of generating capacity. The payback period — the time it takes for the investment to pay for itself— can be lengthy.
The additional requirements will add a significant and possibly prohibitive cost to residential wind turbine development in West Tisbury. The additional benefit of the proposed regulations is questionable.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. Concerns over wind turbines focus primarily around two issues — views and sound.
If we are going to allow the development of wind turbines at all, then the debate over views will be ongoing and ambiguous. Which views are the most important? Does the sight of a wind turbine intrude on a neighbor’s ability to enjoy their property? These questions are matters of judgment and interpretation.
Noise, however, can be measured. The real strength in these proposed regulations could come from well-crafted standards for removal of the turbines if they are not being used and regulations to shut down turbines if they regularly exceed permitted noise levels.
The extra layers — the requirements for site plans and engineering studies and topographical maps — create a heavy burden without a clear benefit.
Massachusetts lawmakers recently passed the Green Communities Act, which requires town planning boards to allow wind turbines on an “as of right” basis if those communities want to be designated as Green Communities. Towns that receive this designation become eligible for significant state grants. The Green Communities Act is a clear indication of the national direction on wind turbines. The proposed regulations in West Tisbury move against a powerful and growing momentum.
David McGlinchey is director of the Vineyard Energy Project.