Turbine risks and accountability

Late last year, Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MTC), the state's development agency for renewable energy, awarded a $474,340 grant to Mark Richey Woodworking and Design, Inc. of Newburyport MA, for the construction of a single 600KW (292-foot) industrial-scale wind turbine to be sited adjacent to the business.

Months later, in April 2008, the Town of Newburyport amended its zoning ordinance to allow wind turbines up to 400-feet tall with minimum setbacks of 150 feet from abutting property lines and 300-feet from residential zoning districts. The Richey turbine proposal was submitted to the town shortly thereafter and a special permit was approved in August paving the way for the turbine to be erected. The location of the turbine is 319-feet from the public pedestrian rail trail, 350-feet from heavily-traveled U.S. Route 1, and 800-feet from the nearest residence.

During the town's review hearing on the project, the developer addressed the risk of ice-shed as follows: "[the turbine] was a long way from the rail trail and if the ice did shed it would be directly below on the Richey property."

Wind turbine manufacturers disagree. According to GE Energy's Wind Application Engineering Group "wind energy production in cold climate provides the following formula for calculating a safe distance: 1.5 * (hub height + rotor diameter)". Based on this formula, the proposed turbine could fling ice 560-feet away, well into the area of the rail trail and traffic on Route 1. This e-mail characterizing ice-shed at the Searsburg, Vermont wind facility provides some insight into the problem. (Note: the turbines at Searsburg are 100-feet shorter than that planned for Newburyport).

Blade failure is another safety factor. Scott Larwood, who researched the history of turbine setbacks in California and the probabilities of rotor and blade failures, told Windaction.org that turbines slightly larger than the Richey tower should have a "safe" setback of 300 meters (987-feet). Turbine manufacturer, Vestas, writes in its Mechanical Operating and Maintenance Manual for the V90 3.0MW turbine that a "radius of 400m (1300 ft) from the turbine" is necessary to ensure safety. 

Blade failures, fire, and turbine collapse do happen and turbine debris can fly considerable distances beyond the setbacks established in the Newburyport ordinance.

When Windaction.org confronted MTC on this issue, public information officer Emily Dahl replied: "Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust's goal is to support the installation of renewable energy projects and expansion of the clean energy industry in Massachusetts for a cleaner environment and stronger economy. The Trust evaluates projects at a high level and seeks to support projects that have a high likelihood of success and are deemed suitable by the communities in which they are located. The Trust is not a permitting agency; rather, permitting decisions for wind turbines are in the hands of each community."

Windaction.org has found a consistent pattern across the U.S. of small communities approving wind turbine proposals with little consideration, or apparent understanding, of the serious safety risks of erecting towers near public areas, rights-of-way, and residences. Windaction.org is particularly critical of MTC for its public advocacy in seeding projects like the Newburyport wind turbine while shirking responsibility for informing the communities of these risks.

(Note: The distances referenced in this editorial pertain to the risks of flying debris from operating turbines. Setbacks to mitigate for turbine noise, shadow flicker and visual impacts are not considered.)

NOV 19 2008
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