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Monday, July 29, 2013

Turbine Tidbits

While we wait on negotiations to buy LeBlanc’s 81 acres…
By Will Collette

No more Zoning hearings until August 28

As most Progressive Charlestown readers know, the Charlestown Town Council finally decided to follow the course of action we’ve been advocating for months as the only sensible solution to ending the three-year old Whalerock wind turbine crisis: negotiate a fair price for the 81 acre site for the proposed wind farm with developer Larry LeBlanc so the land can be preserved as open space. The Zoning Board of Review, accordingly, has suspended hearings on Whalerock’s application for a Special Use Permit until August 28 at the earliest.

Related Whalerock development plan warmly received by Planning Commission

Under the leadership of CCA Party’s Ruth Platner, the Charlestown Planning Commission has earned the reputation of the place where good ideas go to die. But one part of the on-going Whalerock negotiations got its first airing and a very warm reception on July 24. The PC heard from representatives of NIN LLC, the company formed by Larry LeBlanc’s Connecticut partner James Barrows on a plan to carve out two, 2-acre lots from the 81 acres to be used to build new housing. Listen to the discussion by clicking here.

Ruth likes this one
Platner clearly understood – and tried to make sure that all her Planning Commissionettes did too, even the denser ones – that this proposal was integrally tied in with the Whalerock purchase negotiations. 

At one point, Platner and Barrows’ reps noted that if the overall Whalerock deal can’t be completed, this proposal for the two-lot carve-out “goes away.” Since Platner was an early supporter of buying the 81 acres for open space, which is the one thing where Platner and I have ever found common cause – she was about as charming and open to the deal as she is capable of being. She even made helpful suggestions about ways the developer could present the project to expedite the process.

The Planning Commission will do a little walk-about on the property on Tuesday, July 30.

First lawsuit against NK Green Project

If you’ve travelled north of the Tower and ventured into North Kingstown or Wickford, you may have noticed Rhode Island’s tallest wind turbine next to Wickford Junction. It sits in the middle of the NK Green development and has been operation since the beginning of the year, apparently without complaint. Though there was NIMBY resistance to the project, developer Mark DePasquale was able to use the carrot and the stick to beat back the resistance.

That included filing a $25 million suit against several of the resisters, offering a monthly compensation deal to homeowners in his development and literally putting the turbine in his own backyard. He had offered to buy back the property of the lead resisters, Scott and Nicole Newcombe. 

However, now the Newcombes, who moved to North Carolina, are suing DePasquale for breach of contract, claiming DePasquale broke the settlement deal. For its part, DePasquale’s lawyers are arguing that it was the Newcombes who violated the terms of the confidential settlement agreement. Not part of the suit – whether or not the turbine itself has caused any problems to the residents living all around it.

Deepwater NIMBYs form a Political Action Committee

A new PAC has been chartered called Deepwater Resistance to raise money to try to block the Deepwater off-shore wind turbine project off Block Island. Deepwater hopes to ultimately build up to 200 turbines in ocean waters off the coast. The officers of the PAC are all Narragansett residents.

The PAC’s Chair Robert Shields told the Independent, “We’re not trying to formulate one definitive position…The people that have been active have different ideas about what is acceptable. Some would find it acceptable merely for Deepwater to provide an alternative alignment [for the in-coming power cables that Deepwater wants to run from the site to Narragansett] in town. Others see no need to have the project at all.”

In local hearings, that broad spread of opinion was pretty obvious, with some objectors living near the beach area where Deepwater wanted to site its power lines simply wanting the lines run somewhere else to those who completely oppose the idea of wind energy.

In that latter group was our own local anti-wind NIMBY leader Maureen Areglado who testified against Deepwater, apparently believing that even when sited way far off-shore, wind turbines will turn your brain into Wheatena®. 

Even when the turbines are three miles off  Block Island, as the first experimental set-up will be, or much further off if Deepwater wins one of the federal leases currently up for auction where the closest distance to land is around 12 miles.

"Do not sell your soul to the devil to get 15% off your electric bills,” she was quoted as saying by the Block Island Times. “There is not enough science out there yet. What’s the big rush? If it harms one person it is not worth it.” Is there an exorcist in the house?

Wind Turbines and birds

One of the eagles nesting on Watchaug Pond (photo by G. Matteo)
In my critiques of Whalerock, I’ve noted that one generally accepted problem with the technology is the danger it poses to birds, especially raptors such as the eagles that nest near Watchaug Pond and migratory birds, such as those that use Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge as a stopping point along the great Atlantic flyway. 

But we keep getting comments from professional wind NIMBY Jim Wiegand of California who objected to the lack of references in my bibliography of readings on wind power and human health to birds. We published his first comment and replied that the article was about human health and that we've duly noted the issue in other articles.

White-throated needtail after hitting turbine (BBC photo)
We haven’t heard from Wiegand in a while, which is surprising in light of an article that made the rounds in Europe and many parts of the US on the experience of a group of birdwatchers on the Isles of Harris in Scotland who were thrilled to see the very rare world’s fastest bird, the White-throated Needletail. 

Their viewing of this bird was brief, because almost as soon as they spotted it, it smacked into a wind turbine. I’m not making this up and I am definitely not making a joke of this horrible event. The danger to migratory birds is one of the best documented and still unresolved problems with industrial size wind turbines.

Bad Turbines

Like any device made by humans, wind turbines can and will wear out and can and will break. This eventuality bothers me a lot less than the same thing happening at a nuclear power plant, oil refinery or coal mine. Nonetheless, turbine failures are at best a major annoyance and are usually an expensive proposition.

We have three nearby examples of bad turbines: Portsmouth’s giant, broken municipal turbine and the noisy turbines in Falmouth and Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Falmouth gets the most attention because of the claims of a cluster of Wheatena® Brain Syndrome. Fairhaven’s turbines are also noisy, sometimes exceeding state standards.

The Portsmouth turbine problem is described to EcoRI by Portsmouth Town Planner Gary Crosby as a unique situation. We bought a bum machine from a bum company and the hardware failed.” 

Portsmouth wants to get the turbine back into operation and has taken bids to either replace the internal mechanism within the nacelle with a direct-drive generator, instead of the gearbox generator that failed. Or they might decide to replace the entire nacelle and internal works, again favoring direct-drive over gearbox for its better maintenance record.

By a wide margin, Falmouth voters decided to keep the turbines
The Falmouth Board of Selectmen (equivalent to a town council) are stuck with the problem of what to do with their wind turbines after town voters resoundingly defeated a referendum to authorize tearing down the turbines.

The New Bedford Standard-Times reports that the selectmen want to do (or be seen to do) something about the turbines, but without going through another round of raucous town debate, after experiencing the phenomenon where the anti-wind NIMBYs made the most noise, but didn’t have the votes to back up their demand to tear down the turbines.

They are considering a town buy-out of the homes of those claiming Wheatena® Brain Syndrome, replacing the turbines with a field of solar panels, running the turbines at different times or some other option yet to be identified.

If the Falmouth Selectmen hope to avoid more public uproar by substituting solar panels for turbines, they might want to check out what happened when Westerly tried that, scrapping a proposal for turbines and proposing instead a solar panel field on town land off White Rock Road. 

It was actually the RI Health Department that killed the project because of concern the panels or simply installing panels might release chemical contaminants into water supplies. However, the recent heavy construction on White Rock to re-grade, re-do drainage and lay down massive amounts of asphalt apparently poses no similar threat to water supplies. Go figure.

Fairhaven struggles with a problem similar to Falmouth’s where local elected officials are also trying to find a solution that will get angry objectors off their backs without breaking the back of the town’s budget. But Fairhaven’s problem has one complication that’s not in Falmouth and that’s ownership. 

Falmouth and Portsmouth own their turbines, which means they own the problem, but also control the remedies.

In Fairhaven, the town has a “lend-leaseback” agreement where the town gets the power, but the actually ownership of the turbine is Fairhaven Wind LLC. If Fairhaven took enforcement action against the turbines, this could trigger complicated and expensive litigation with the town’s lease-back partner.