Public safety thrown to the wind

Mars Hill wind farm and iceSeveral years back, we wrote how the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MTC), a quasi-public agency tasked with encouraging renewable energy technologies in the State of Massachusetts, gambled $5.28 million in public funds to purchase two new (at the time) Vestes V82 – 1.65 megawatt wind turbines. MTC hoped to jumpstart local public renewable projects by making the Vestas turbines available for sale.

The Town of Orleans was one of the first candidates for the towers but sensitive watershed areas compromised the plan. The agency then moved aggressively to place them in Mattapoisett, MA and neighboring Fairhaven, MA, but public opposition to the giant turbines too close to residential areas stymied the effort. MTC took delivery of the V82 turbines in September, 2006 and warehoused them in Houston, TX at storage fees as high as $3,000 a month. They eventually found a 'home'  -- in Falmouth, MA.

WIND 1 went online in early 2010 at Falmouth’s Wastewater Treatment Plant. WIND 2, currently under construction, will be located only 1000 feet (less than five rotor widths) away.

With homes a short 1,350 feet from WIND 1, as soon as it started spinning complaints about noise and shadow flicker hit the media.

GE and Buy America

While WIND 1 was community funded through a combination of general bonds, grants and advanced payments on renewable energy credits sold under the State's Renewable Portfolio Standard program, the second is being funded entirely through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) . 

Recall, ARRA Section 1605 asserts a "buy America" provision and MTC's Vestas V82 (vintage 2005-06) turbines were not American-made. Falmouth needed a waiver to get its hands on the stimulus money or change out MTC's turbine in-hand for a domestic-made equivalent.

Apparently, the Town solicited General Electric as a potential turbine supplier, but GE's siting standards required a safety setback of 1.5 times the hub height plus rotor diameter be maintained in the event of icing. The setback distance would be measured from occupied structures, roads, property lines and public access areas.

Unless the turbine was moved, GE was unwilling to do business. 

This must have been a relief for Falmouth and MTC. Why hassle with another vendor, especially one so particular about safety, when the Vestas turbine was already in hand and, better yet, Vestas, the company, didn't suffer the same safety hang-ups. The town would solve the problem by requesting a waiver from the Buy America provision in the law.

GE's safety setback applied to the Vestas V82 would be 797 feet [1]. WIND 2 will exceed the standard to the property line (552 feet), the nearest public road (646 feet) and come within 350 feet of the nearest residential structure.

In siting documents prepared for the Falmouth site, risks of ice throw were dismissed this way:

Icing of wind turbine blades occurs mainly during standstill periods. If icing were to to be a problem at the proposed location, then adequate start-up procedures would prevent the wind turbine from starting if blades are covered with ice. In any case, the recommended turbine location is far enough away from property lines and public ways to minimize the small potential risks associated with these issues. 

Waiver granted

The federal government, in this case the EPA, determined that no domestic manufactured wind turbines were available that could meet WIND 2's project design and performance specifications. The waiver was granted.

The notice of waiver that appeared in the Federal Register on April 27, 2010 included this text:

Section 1605 of the ARRA requires that none of the appropriated funds may be used for the construction, alteration, maintenance, or repair of a public building or a public works project unless all of the iron, steel, and manufactured goods used in the project is produced in the United States, or unless a waiver is provided to the recipient by the head of the appropriate agency, here the EPA. A waiver may be provided if EPA determines that (1) applying these requirements would be inconsistent with the public interest; (2) iron, steel, and the relevant manufactured goods are not produced in the United States in sufficient and reasonably available quantities and of a satisfactory quality; or (3) inclusion of iron, steel, and the relevant manufactured goods produced in the United States will increase the cost of the overall project by more than 25 percent.

So, let's be clear here. GE, which has more of its turbines installed in the United States than any other manufacturer, and arguably the most experience with operating turbines in the varied climates within the US -- certainly more experience than EPA and the Town of Falmouth -- raised public safety concerns over the risks of ice throw, and Falmouth looked the other way. EPA, in turn, agreed that applying GE safety standards to the site would be "inconsistent with the public interest". Is it any wonder Falmouth is the latest poster child for poor turbine siting? 

The risk is real

If anyone doubts that ice builds up on turbines in the Massachusetts area, it's worth watching this short video clip from Newburyport, MA where a smaller 600-kw turbine standing just under 300-feet was erected. Or watch this clip from Wisconsin involving turbines similar in size to the V82.

The story doesn't end there.

Two months prior to Falmouth receiving its waiver, EPA supported a waiver request by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (“MWRA”) to acquire a turbine built by Chinese turbine maker, Sinovel. The turbine is expected to power the DeLauri Pump Station in Charlestown, Massachusetts where GE found the setback distances insufficient to protect the public from ice throw. Lucky for the MWRA, Sinovel was more than happy to take the money.

We would have expected public safety to trump other interests, but apparently not. At some point, the turbines in Falmouth and Charlestown will throw ice and the risk is real that people/property will be on the receiving end. But with EPA, MTC, the US Treasury and other public entities all willing to waive the risk on behalf of the public, who will be held accountable?

[1] The hub height for the Vestas V82 is 262 feet; the rotor diameter is 269 feet. The safety setback calculation is 1.5 x (262 + 269) or 796.5 feet.

APR 21 2011
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