Tuesday August 24, 2010

PITTSFIELD -- The road toward more wind energy in the Berkshires took an unexpected turn Monday, when a lone Republican state senator put the brakes on new regulations meant to streamline turbine projects in the state.

State Sen. Michael Knapik, R-Westfield, objected to the legislation during an informal session, a measure that can effectively stop a bill in its tracks. Democrats in the state Senate have said they will redouble their efforts to pass the bill.

"It makes chances for the passage of the bill rather bleak," said state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield.

Downing is a proponent of the wind siting bill that would give cities and towns 120 days to review and decide upon new wind siting projects, before allowing developers to bypass those groups and go before a state panel instead.

The goal for the legislation is to build 3,000 wind turbines across the state -- with several prime wind sites potentially located in the Berkshires. Opponents fear the new rules would take local control away when deciding where turbine projects get built.

Downing said he was convinced to back the bill when legislators removed a portion of it that would have allowed developers to build turbines on state-owned parks.

"One of the reason that energy costs are high in Berkshire County is because we're at the end of a pipeline when it comes to generating energy," Downing said. "The more likely we are to pass this, the more likely we are to have stable energy prices moving forward."

While Knapik was the only member of the Senate to dig in his heels over the measure, other Berkshire officials said they would have followed suit.

"The bill takes away the control of local boards and commissions to determine these projects when they're proposed for development," said state Rep. Denis E. Guyer, D-Dalton. "Towns like Peru and Hancock and Richmond that don't have full-time staff and planning departments, they don't have the expertise or the time to check out these extremely complex proposals."

State Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams, said that he also had reservations about the bill.

"This is something that dramatically affects Western Massachsuetts... but I think there ought to be other checks and balances," Bosley said, adding that he had voted against it. "I'm not opposed to wind power, although I think we need to take another look at the economics of it."

Guyer said he felt the legislation should have been further scrutinized, and not just by the Joint Committee on Telecommunications and Energy.

"This bill had one hearing, one day in the Statehouse, 18 months before it was passed, in front of one committee," Guyer said. "The more you look at these things and the more you learn, the less you'll like it."

Downing said that he didn't think zoning and select boards would be cut out of the decision-making process if the rules were adopted.

"In the end, [the bill is] not necessarily getting to ‘yes' or to ‘no' quicker on these projects," he said. "Good projects can move forward and bad projects can be rejected -- but no one wins when projects are held up for a decade."