Daily Hampshire Gazette logo
Note: bold added by MAMEC

Shifting power on wind

Legislation to speed permitting for energy projects, overriding local zoning, splits area lawmakers

Staff Writer

Mt Tom
A view of the Mount Tom Range in Easthampton and Holyoke, site of a proposed wind-power project. Holyoke Gas and Electric is pursuing a plan to install four turbines capable of producing up to 1.65 megawatts per tower.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

AMHERST - Hampshire County is home to no commercial or community-scale wind turbines. That may change following agreement this week on a controversial bill designed to expedite permits for windmills.

The legislation produced a sharp debate between alternative energy advocates, who argue the measure was needed to spur development of wind power in the commonwealth, and advocates of local control, who say the bill gives too much power to the wind industry to overrun municipal zoning bylaws.

Lawmakers reached a compromise on the bill late Thursday. The measure calls on communities with potential wind-energy sites to create local boards to review and approve projects.

The proposal produced a rare division between Hampshire County's Senate and House delegations. All five of the county's representatives - state Reps. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton, Ellen Story, D-Amherst, Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, John Scibak, D-South Hadley, and Dennis Guyer, D-Dalton - voted against the measure. State Sens. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, both supported the bill.

Downing, a member of the House and Senate conference committee on the bill, said the legislation was needed to address the steady flow of appeals that wind projects generate.

"We think there is a compelling case to be made that instead of fighting over projects for years, we get to a 'yes' or a 'no' quicker, moving ahead with the good projects and rejecting the bad ones," Downing said Friday.

Gov. Deval Patrick has said he would sign the legislation.

Advocates of the measure point to the Hoosac Wind project in Florida and Monroe as examples of why the new legislation is needed.

Ken Kimmel, general counsel for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said that project had been initially approved by the two towns' conservation commissions. Yet a string of appeals by opponents of the 30-megawatt project saw it first appealed to the Department of Environmental Protection's regional office, then the DEP commissioner, then to superior court and finally to the state Supreme Judicial Court - all of which approved the project, Kimmel said.

"That's the problem that we want to fix," Kimmel said.

Ian Bowles, secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, made a similar point.

"Our environmental laws are there to protect the environment," Bowles said. "They are not there for fights about aesthetics, and I think this law remedies the phenomenon we're seeing of essentially using the environmental appeals process for delay, not environmental protection."

Where power lies

The bill's opponents argued the measure gave too much power to the wind industry to override local zoning bylaws.

"What the wind industry wants is a process where there are no mechanisms for people to adequately stop a wind project," said Guyer, who represents the Hampshire County towns of Cummington, Plainfield and Middlefield. "If a community puts forward specific specifications for a wind project, they can be overruled."

The House passed its version of the bill by a 101-52 margin July 14. The legislation establishes a single state wind-siting standard for wind turbines, creates a wind turbine permitting board at the local level and makes the state Energy Facilities Siting Board the sole permitting authority at the state level.

"I think I speak for all of us in saying that we are in favor of wind energy, but this bill left a lot questions unanswered," said Story, the Amherst representative, speaking of the other members in the Hampshire County delegation. "I was just not convinced that the streamlining had enough protection in it for local control."

She said she was looking for a better balance between local rule and quicker approvals.

Handling appeals

The crux of disagreement centers on the appeals process. Under the new law, a windmill project will not move forward if it is rejected by a municipality's wind-permitting board, which would be made up of members of the conservation commission, zoning board of appeals and planning board. The developer could appeal that ruling in court, as is now the case.

However, if a community group objected to the proposal, its appeal would go straight to the Energy Facility Sighting Board and then the state Supreme Court. Opponents of the bill argue that those two bodies strongly favor wind-energy developers.

The legislation could change the landscape of a county that, according to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, does not have a single large-scale wind turbine.

However, the lack of turbines in Hampshire County does not reflect a lack of wind.

A 2009 Department of Energy Resources study of potential windmill sites on state land identified a high potential wind plot on the Plainfield-Cummington town line, for instance. The report predicted that five turbines there could produce 8 megawatts of electricity. The report also identifies two potential turbine sites in Middlefield.

Yet those sites will likely not be developed, Downing said, as the new regulations will not apply to state parks and forests. The installation of a windmill on such lands would require a vote of the Legislature, as is now the case, he said.

Cummington, Plainfield and Middlefield, because of their elevation, boast the highest wind potential in the county, according to the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. All three towns have areas with reported wind speeds of 7 to 7.5 meters per second. Chesterfield, Goshen, Huntington, Westhampton, Worthington and Williamsburg all have areas with reported winds of at least 6 to 6.5 meters per second and some, more limited areas, with wind speeds of 6.5 to 7 meters per second, according to the state.

Wind speeds of at least 6.4 to 7 meters per second are considered the minimum required to operate a 50-meter wind turbine.

Now, only one wind project has been proposed in Hampshire County. The Hilltown Resource Management Cooperative is spearheading an effort to build a single 100 to 200 kilowatt turbine at New Hingham Elementary School in Chesterfield.

Eric Weiss, administrator of the cooperative, said his organization is conducting a feasibility study with the help of a $30,000 grant from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. The group is in the middle of that study, Weiss said. He described himself as a supporter of the new legislation.

"I know that both the Green Communities program and this new wind legislation are trying to expedite green energy production statewide," Weiss said. "I think as long as it's done right, I am a big supporter."

Project barriers

James Manwell, director of the University of Massachusetts Wind Energy Center, reckons that the lack of wind development in the area - and the state as a whole - is due to the number of bureaucratic hurdles it takes to install a wind turbine in the state.

"Government policy is not as effective as it could be," Manwell said in a phone interview.

He listed complicated tax credits, complex zoning laws and a lack of technical assistance for small-scale developers as some of the primary impediments to the development of wind power in Massachusetts.

The areas of Massachusetts that have been most successful with installing windmills have been municipalities with existing town-owned electric companies. They possess expertise in managing electric systems, Manwell said. He noted that towns like Hull and Princeton have been successful in installing turbines for this very reason.

"In the big picture, wind is generally low (environmental) impact and Hampshire County has areas that are windy enough to do it," he said. "A rational policy would be to make it easier to do, but I am not optimistic about it."

While the county does not have much in the way of wind power, it is ringed by proposed wind developments.
Holyoke Gas and Electric is pursuing a plan to install four turbines capable of producing up to 1.65 megawatts per tower on the Mount Tom Range in Holyoke.

Three proposed wind-power developments are before the Berkshire County town of Savoy. Minuteman Wind seeks a permit for five-turbine, 12.5-megawatt project, Patriot Renewables is pursuing a plan for a 16-turbine, 32-megawatt wind farm and LZ Wind has a plan for a sole 900-kilowatt turbine in the town, according to Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

Both Downing and Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles, supporters of the legislation, said they do not expect the new law to spur a proliferation in the number of on-shore windmills.

Bowles noted that the state produces between 40 and 50 megawatts of wind power and has a goal of producing 2,000 megawatts by 2020. Much of that power would come from offshore developments like Cape Wind, Bowles said.

Bowles said officials must be selective about on-shore sites. "We have the third-highest population density in the country.