Is there a future for land-based wind turbines in Southeastern Massachusetts?
Maybe, but prospects for the onshore wind industry are not as robust as they once were.
In towns south of Boston and west of Cape Cod, there are no plans for new onshore turbines, and one of Massachusetts’ leading wind experts said a lack of new activity across the state has led him to move away from studying onshore wind.
State government has also turned its focus elsewhere, as new energy legislation signed last year emphasized offshore wind and other renewable sources.
From one town to another south of Boston, the experience with onshore turbines has varied greatly. Some neighbors have embraced them; others have complained and have been successful in curbing their hours of operation. Some turbines have had technical problems, and many have been proposed but never built in the face of local opposition.
Proponents of wind power say that turbines provide a way for municipalities to lower their electric bills, which saves taxpayers money while creating power cleanly close to home.
“It needs to be part of our energy mix,” said Larry Chretien, executive director of the Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance. “The more people know about wind power, the more they like it.”
But some people who live near turbines have complained about noise, a loss of sleep, and subsequent health concerns, and they wonder what a turbine looming within sight of their homes could do to the value of their properties.
Turbine opponents say that education helps communities resist them.
“We really, really want people to be educated and make the best decision,” said Louise Grabowski, president of Wind Wise Massachusetts, a leading turbine opponent in the state.
Grabowski got her start when a turbine was proposed for Moon Island in Quincy. She and her neighbors in the Squantum neighborhood were successful in defeating that proposal in 2012, and now Wind Wise offers information about turbines to people concerned about wind proposals in their towns.
She said the group is most concerned with siting turbines appropriately, far enough away from neighbors so they do not create health problems. She is also “interested in conserving the traditional scenescapes.” The state is too densely populated, even in the west, to avoid noise nuisances generated by megawatt turbines, she said.
Some people who live near turbines report problems such as sleep disruption, headaches, vertigo, and nausea, Grabowski said. Proponents of wind energy reject many of these complaints, but they admit the turbines do make noise.
Unlike large industrial air conditioners, said Grabowski, turbines can’t be enclosed in any way to reduce noise.
“The only real remedy is distance,” she said.
There are 46 onshore wind installations with turbines of 100 kilowatts or larger, producing a total of 115 megawatts, operating across the state, according to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a publicly funded organization. Grabowski counts 52 other projects of one or more turbines that have been rejected.
“The opposition for wind projects has been much more organized,” said Gordon Deane, president of Palmer Capital, which is involved in several wind projects. “They gather bad stories of wind throughout the world and publish them.”
Jim Manwell, a mechanical engineering professor and director of the Wind Energy Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, questioned some objections to turbines, such as complaints about sound waves that can’t be heard.
“There’s a lot that’s gone on, and sometimes it’s hard to separate real issues from imagined ones,” he said.
Manwell doesn’t focus on onshore wind anymore because there isn’t a lot of activity, he said.
There’s another reason to consider the future of onshore wind in Massachusetts.
As the state faces closure of a coal-generated power plant in Somerset this May and Plymouth’s Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in 2019, it looks to utilize more power from renewable sources. But it’s not clear how much of that will come from land-based turbines.
Governor Charlie Baker signed comprehensive energy legislation last August that emphasized hydropower and “spurs the development of an emerging offshore wind industry,” according to a news release from Baker’s office.
There was mention of onshore wind, though it was relatively minor. The law requires utilities to purchase power from renewable sources, which could include onshore wind.
The fate of onshore turbines — whether they are embraced or reviled in any given town — can depend on several factors, said town officials, wind developers, and residents. It matters whether a municipality feels ownership of the initiative and believes the turbines benefit residents. It matters even more whether they work properly and where they are placed in relation to where people live.
Still, acceptance can be unpredictable.
“It’s hard to put your finger on why some are received well and others aren’t,” said Nils Bolgen, program director at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.
Bolgen said there are no new plans for land-based wind turbines south of Boston.
In Scituate, the town thinks its turbine has been a good investment, though its operating hours have been adjusted.
“There were complaints and we did noise studies,” said Deane, an owner of the Scituate turbine. The company agreed to curtail operation at certain times in the summer, when people have their windows open, which hasn’t led to much lost production, he said.
Al Bangert said the Scituate turbine generates half of the power necessary for municipal and school buildings.
“It’s been a fantastic deal for the town,” said Al Bangert, a former Department of Public Works director who now leads special projects for the town. “It’s virtually cost us nothing, and we’re making $250,000 a year on it.”
The turbine, which started operating in 2012, generates half of the power necessary for municipal and school buildings, and a solar array provides the other half. The $250,000 the town gets from the turbine’s energy production goes into a building fund.
In Hanover, the journey has been more difficult, as a turbine there was plagued with mechanical problems, said Town Manager Troy Clarkson.
The machine, erected in 2012, is finally in operation, but the town didn’t vote to take ownership of it until November.
Elsewhere, turbines in Kingston began operating in 2012 but drew complaints, and in Plymouth, machines installed last year have brought complaints from residents there and in neighboring Bourne.
Proponents of wind energy, such as Chretien, say there are still suitable places for onshore turbines in Massachusetts, and they hope that even in places where turbines have been rejected, proposals will be given another chance.
But maybe they won’t.
“My general understanding is that people don’t really try very hard anymore,” said Manwell, of UMass. “Maybe in anticipation of getting a lot of opposition.”
Status of notable projects south of Boston
Hanover: 225-kilowatt turbine erected in 2012 but plagued by problems. Town took ownership in late 2016.
Hull: Two town-owned turbines, 660 kilowatts and 1.8 megawatts, installed in 2001 and 2006.
Kingston: Two privately owned projects started up in 2012: Kingston Wind Independence, 2 megawatts, on town land (right); and No Fossil Fuel, three turbines, 2 megawatts each. In 2014, Town Meeting instituted a two-year moratorium on turbine construction.
Plymouth: Two privately owned projects: Future Generation Wind, four 2-megawatt turbines, became fully operational in 2016; and Camelot Wind, 1.5 megawatts, began operating in 2012.
Scituate: 1.5-megawatt turbine, privately owned, began operating in 2012.
Sources: Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, Wind Wise Massachusetts, town officials