On March 30, the Board of Selectmen of the Town of Wellfleet voted unanimously to suspend work on the proposed wind turbine project. It grieved me to make the decision and to have to disappoint so many people, especially those members of the Wellfleet Energy Committee (WEC) who gave literally years of their time, effort, and energy to this project. The vote has caused confusion and some controversy. I am writing to clarify why I chose to vote against the project, and why that evening and not at or after the Annual Town Meeting.
As a selectman I have been discussing the possibility of a wind project for Wellfleet for at least three years now. Like so many of you, I was very open to the possibility of a wind turbine for Wellfleet. I traveled across the country two years ago and saw turbine farms in Arizona. I did not stand at the base of one, nor did I hear one. In retrospect, I was probably 100 miles away, but I thought they were beautiful and decorative, and in no way marred the landscape. I was present when the MET tower was erected in the rear of the parking lot at White Crest Beach, and when we received the data from the met tower, and decided to move forward with a formal study. I voted in favor of all these steps, including the article at town meeting to authorize the board to spend money for the necessary studies. At each juncture, although very excited and hopeful, I realized that at any time in the process we could come across information that would be a deal breaker for the town. We were cautiously optimistic, and for me, it was all still conceptual.
Like all towns, we are facing many difficult decisions, quite a few of them are financial, even if they do not appear to be on the surface. Each year we face increasing challenges to balance the budget with the needs of citizens. We need to pay for our employees, keep our schools educating children, and continue to provide the town services that people rely on. Add to this mix that no one wants to pay more taxes, and many residents can not afford to. Paradoxically, as a town, we are conservation minded and really care about our land. We actively pursue placing more and more land into conservation and have worked to limit new building growth via zoning rules, both of which will continue to place more tax burden on existing property owners. In other words, it is all complicated, and never just about one thing. We are all struggling to find and keep a quality of life, and it is different for all of us. Our values are often not the same, and this leads to conflict, debate, and many tough decisions.
This winter I began to look more closely at the progress of the wind turbine project. Like most people, I had made assumptions regarding the siting and other issues, and the WEC had moved well beyond where I was. One of the changes was that the turbine could not be sited at White Crest (site 1) where the met tower was erected and the wind testing was done, so the WEC moved to the alternative site back into the forest of Wellfleet by the Sea (site 2) approximately 1/2 mile into the woods. Two other factors entered into the mix: the Board began to get more regular updates from the WEC (as they had new and important data and many time constraints and decisions to make) and there was a growing and active opposition to the project, raising concerns and demanding answers to questions. I read all of the studies that had been completed to date (available on the town’s website) in order to be more ready to respond. I started to do my research, ask questions, and discuss the project. I walked to the proposed site (site 2), from both directions, and started to take a look at both the east and west entry road proposals. I spent many hours trying to understand sound modeling data, and trying to understand the scale and measurements of the turbine. I admit that it was very difficult for me to wrap my brain around the scale of the turbine. I had envisioned something like what is at country gardens in Hyannis: what I perceive as a benign, beautiful, slim structure, propelled by the wind and soundlessly somehow converting wind to electricity, maybe with batteries. (It is a blonde wind vision). What I began to see and read and conceptualize, was very different. At first, it gave me pause, and I wanted to study more, but then I received two more updates from the WEC (3/23 & 3/30) and my growing concerns became solidified. My concerns centered around: the appropriateness of Site 2, the need to build major road access and what that would do to the land approaching from either east (White Crest) or west (Duck Pond Road), the financial projections and reliance on many assumptions, noise issues and the short distance between the turbine and residential homes, and insurance issues. I thought at the time, that any one of these could be deal-breaker issues for me in analyzing the benefits vs. risks of this project.
On 3/23, the Board received an update from the WEC which provided negative data regarding the financial projections, insurance concerns, and site access issues. The following week, the town would be signing a contract to engage consultants in what would be one of the longest and most expensive studies to date, the environmental/migratory bird study which would continue for 6 months, and would give us data on an entire nesting season. There was now a time element introduced, and a decision needed to be made.
On 3/30, the WEC presented a more positive presentation to the board, but even then, tossed the responsibility and liability for possible unanswerable questions squarely in our domain, where I admit, they belonged. While the citizens present heard only the positive presentation, we, as board members had two written updates prior to the meeting, so at that point, barring any new information, I was ready to make a decision.
These were and remain my concerns:
The issue of noise: A turbine is a rotary engine that extracts energy from airflow and converts it to electricity. Turbine engines create most of our electrical power, and also power everything from refrigerators to jet engines and even the powerful space shuttle. The process of energy conversion is not just the wind turning the blades as I thought, it is an engine that is converting wind to electricity, and it makes noise. At times, the noise can be a mechanical whooshing sound, and at other times much louder, anywhere from a refrigerator to an airplane engine.
The models available to predict sound and the standards available to regulate levels of sound, were inadequate in predicting what close neighbors would hear, and at what levels they would hear sound. I read the sound data presented by our consultants, but also did research on several models available for predicting sound from the turbines. The best one was a UMASS study which took into effect: groundcover, height of turbine, length of blades or “tip height”, and projected “adequate” distances. The truth is, turbines do make noise, and it is constant. It changes in different wind speeds and at different wind directions, but 24 hours per day, as long as the turbine is turning, there will be noise. The National Park Service Natural Program Sounds Group evaluated the sound study completed by our consultants, and NPS scientists found problems with the report, including that there was insufficient data, based on the fact that our study collected data in a single day. Their other concerns were: that the estimation of ambient noise in the area was too high, that the data was measured at inappropriate locations, and they believed they would need much more comprehensive information to perform a reasonable evaluation, including a minimum of 30 days worth of sound data. The WEC recommended that we study the sound issue more, but the turbine chosen is fairly new, and since wind direction, wind speed, and the characteristics of site are so variable, the truth is, we can’t really “know” what the neighbors will hear until after it is built and operating. From site 2, we have 38 homes ¼ mile away, and many more up to ½ mile away. At these distances it is likely that residences will be impacted by noise, and experience in other locations tells us that some will be truly negatively impacted. Shouldn’t we learn from other people’s mistakes? I would prefer to have at a site with a larger radius of no homes, at least ½ mile, so we could be more confident that residents would not be adversely affected. The WEC was very clear in the presentation of 3/30 that while they were confident that the project could meet the state standard, they could make no other assurances that the problems that have occurred in other communities would not happen here in Wellfleet. In fact, with our wind speeds and directions, the model suggested there would probably be the most noise in the summer months and up-wind of the turbine, the precise area where we have the most density of private residences. In my mind, this was a guarantee of problems.
Financial risk: Black & Veatch, the engineering consultant that did the feasibility study, judged this project to be not attractive for any private developer, which was the reason we initiated a municipal study. In order to make it financially feasible, lots of complex issues needed to be resolved and agreements honored by other government entities. The initial cost of the turbine would be 5.3 million dollars. All proforma budgets are based on certain assumptions and ours was no different. The wind turbine at Site 2 was expected to generate a revenue stream that was over four times the current wholesale rate of electricity. This was due to two sources (“net metering” and “renewable energy certificates”), both of which are supported by legislative subsidies and/or consumer surcharges. Our financial proforma assumed that these subsidies would be available in the future. The “net metering” subsidies are subject to an aggregate “cap” for all renewable energy projects statewide that is equal to 1% of peak electricity production. The WEC predicted that this “cap” would be reached in 2011 and would require a legislative decision to continue the subsidy by raising the cap to accommodate new electric producers, or the “race” was on to see who could erect a turbine the fastest in order to qualify for the better rates. The numbers in the proforma depended on meeting the goal of completion by 2011. Any project delays would have possible dire financial implications. Going in, we knew there was no definite assurance, but we explored anyway, in the hope that other information would assist us in calculating the risk.
The projections assumed two other facts that were variable: that the proposed turbine would have a “capacity factor” of 30%, and that the price that Wellfleet is paid for its new electricity would increase each year. (The price of electricity declined by about 50% between 2008 and 2009.) Cape & Vineyard Electric Cooperative for the town of Harwich estimated capacity for a wind turbine similar to Wellfleet’s at 24.3% and a wind turbine of almost identical height at Hull (Hull II) has a capacity factor of 24%. If a capacity factor of 25% was assumed and energy prices did not rise every year, then the project would have produced much less revenue than predicted. If the price of electricity fell, or we did not qualify for the net metering, or the capacity of the turbine was less than anticipated, or any combination occurred, annual financial losses would occur and the project would become a disaster for the town.
Weather related risk. In the memo from the WEC dated 3/23, I learned that the proposed turbine is guaranteed to survive only up to 95 MPH winds, certainly a great wind speed, but one that we see here at least once each winter. I think it is likely that in the life of the turbine we will have wind far in excess of this. We are a coastal New England town that commonly deals with winter storms and high winds, and what about a hurricane? It seems likely that we may have periods of non-functioning, and possibly a collapse. The WEC actively investigated the current insurance market, and there is insurance for weather related issues up to a limit of $500,000. Replacing parts every once in awhile after a winter storm is possible, but will be expensive, replacing the whole turbine, even once in its 20 year life span, will make the project financially unfeasible. At the time of our 3/30 meeting, we had just sent the financial proforma out to an independent consultant for review, but the financial and insurance issues were racking up, with so many potential pitfalls. I had to ask myself what our current tolerance for financial risk was. Should we, the Board of Selectmen be prepared to support the project in light of the knowledge that incorporating more modest expectations for the performance of the turbine, coupled with real insurance issues, indicates a possibility of substantial losses to the Town of Wellfleet? It seemed like gambling to me, and truly, we cannot afford to gamble right now.
Site 2: The turbine itself grew in proportion from a small enterprise to an industrial size turbine with a "hub" of 264 feet (the size of the Pilgrim Monument) with blades at 420 feet long (a football field is 360 feet long). It does not arrive in pieces, but is brought in on huge trucks that need to have wide, flat roads on which to travel. It would have required major destruction to create the site and get the turbine in: including cutting and filling a 30 foot-wide, 1/2 mile long road, and building an immense concrete slab to support the structure. Site 2 is located in the forest 1/2 mile behind site 1. It is difficult to walk from site 1 to site 2 as there are no paths, but easy to go from Old County Road or Duck Pond Road through the forest to the site. From a few hundred yards past the new site, there, you can see the “east route” or clear through to the low brush near site 1. If you walk either route, you will clearly be able to see the kind of immense project that clearing and filling the land to make a road would be. This part of the woods has some of the most dramatic grade changes in Wellfleet. The road option (west) was a long run starting at the now narrow, dirt Duck Pond Road, crossing woodlots owned by the town, the housing authority development, the power line and thru the woods to the site. The road option (east) is from Ocean View Drive, across dramatic grades, into the forest and to the site. In the memo from the WEC dated 3/23, both options were discussed in detail, also citing that NHESP and MESA review may cause additional delays in the project due to environmental issues. In the report on 3/30, the WEC stated that a decision was made to use the east route (the original route) despite the grade changes. I agreed the east access was better, because I had grave concerns re: the Duck Pond access, but even with the east access, there is no doubt in my mind the site work would be very expensive and extremely intrusive to the area. It wouldn’t be just a quick fire road, it would completely change the landscape of an area we have successfully protected from development for over 50 years and that many residents and visitors use and cherish. This is the single largest parcel of conservation land the town has left, and resides in the heart of the National Seashore Park.
I had to weigh the benefits to the community that would balance this level of environmental destruction, aside from financial risk and resident dissatisfaction, and I didn’t see those benefits. I began to see the incalculable risks instead.
Ultimately, from the remarks of the other Selectmen as well as my own, I think we all decided that while we need to pursue forms of alternative energy for the town, Wellfleet really is not the place for a power plant, however benign it may be compared to other power plants. We would still be taking great financial risk and destroying a precious part of our rural environment to sell energy to the grid. I hope, as a community, we will aggressively pursue smaller, more beneficial alternative energy sources: hydropower (the new herring run tide gate, perhaps), solar panels (town buildings) and possibly smaller wind projects, but most importantly, energy conservation efforts, using less rather than creating more. We have not given up on alternative energy; we just need to do things more suited to our rural scale. The Vesta (maker of the turbine) tagline is, “a more efficient way to more power”, I would suggest that our motto should be,” a more efficient and environmentally friendly way to responsibly use our existing power.
Jacqui Wildes Beebe