What if ... turbines sparked state's power

Posted

Wednesday, Oct. 28
Two utility-scale wind projects on hold in Berkshire County, with a combined 45 megawatts of capacity, would expand wind generated electricity in the state by about 500 percent and power the equivalent of 15,000 homes, according to local and state officials.

But both are tied up in litigation filed by local property owners, and one of the projects has been delayed for more than five years.

A bill pending in the Legislature might cut the time needed for permitting, eliminating much of the litigation-generated delays and result in more wind energy development in Western Massachusetts, according to the state secretary of energy and environmental affairs.

"The Wind Energy Siting Reform bill will make utility-scale wind projects easier," Ian A. Bowles said. "It would maintain the right to appeal projects, but any appeals would be limited to one judicial level. It would be a very significant difference."

The permitting process would also be expedited by requiring local towns to issue all permits from one combined panel, with a similar process at the state level, reducing the permitting period by two to three years, Bowles said. Local control would remain because towns and municipalities would have the first shot at turning down any proposed project.

According to a report issued Oct. 20 by the American Wind Energy Association, Massachusetts has a total of nine megawatts of installed wind power capacity, compared to the national capacity of 31,100 megawatts. Texas ranked highest in the nation with 8,797 megawatts of installed wind capacity.

In January, Gov. Deval L. Patrick set a goal of 2,000 megawatts of wind-power capacity by 2020, enough to supply electricity to 800,000 homes.

But the Hoosac Wind Project, a 20-turbine, 30-megawatt venture planned for Bakke Mountain in Florida and Crum Hill in Monroe, was begun in 2004 and had its original permit withdrawn in February 2005 when two groups appealed the Department of Environmental Protection's wetlands permit to an administrative magistrate.

The project is estimated to cost more than $50 million.

Since then, one ruling has gone in favor of the plaintiffs, and two have favored the wind project with the latest ruling being appealed to the state appeals court.

On Oct. 21, the state's highest court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, announced it would bypass the state appeals court and pick up the appeal directly. A ruling on the case is expected to take at least another six months.

"The Wind Energy Siting Reform Act will not affect the ongoing development of the Hoosac wind project," said Paul Copleman, spokesman for Hoosac Wind project developer Iberdrola Renewables. "We believe the Hoosac site remains an excellent site for development, and we are pleased that the [Supreme Judicial Court] has agreed to hear the appeal. We are confident that the state's decision to grant the permit is correct and that the court will once again uphold the permit, allowing us to finally move forward on a project that enjoys overwhelming local support."

Meanwhile, the $46 million Berkshire Wind project, a 15-megawatt wind farm on the ridgeline of Brodie Mountain in Hancock, was halted by court order earlier this month over a suit filed by adjacent property owner Silverleaf Resorts concerning a special permit for the access road. It has been in various stages of development since 1998.

To date, four of the 10, 1.5-megawatt turbines have been completed, three more under construction, and three sites are ready for the rest. The turbines rise about 385 feet above the ridge line.

According to state Sen. Michael W. Morrissey, chairman of the state senate's Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, it is possible the Wind Energy Siting Reform bill could make it out of the Senate within a month.

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"We have made some changes and we are now seeking public input," Morrissey said. "So we're still working on it but we don't have a final draft yet. We'd like to get it out of the Senate this month."

Bowles hopes to see the bill passed by both houses by the time this legislative session ends.

Tad Ames, president of Berkshire Natural Resources, said in its present form, the bill does little to protect local control of scenic ridgelines.

"We're discouraged by the bill in its current form," Ames said. "We do believe good siting standards are needed to encourage good wind development, but we feel short shrift has been given to local input and control."

Ames said there is also great concern that state-owned conservation lands would be applicable to the expedited process of the bill.

Morrissey said the bill does protect state-owned conservancy lands from the expedited wind siting process as proposed.

"[State conservancy lands] are exempted from the expedited process," Morrissey said.

State Rep. Daniel E. Bosley, D-North Adams, said he is watching the bill as it proceeds through committee.

"I think the goal is to eliminate from the process those who want to stop these projects at all cost in the courts by running the clock," he said. "But at the same time, if there is a bad project, we need to be able to say no. I'm sure there is a good compromise out there and I'm anxious to see what comes out of committee."

State Sen. Ben Downing said he has been working with committee members to be sure local needs are addressed by the bill.

"I would like to see a requirement that any project going through the expedited process should be required to provide a local benefit," he said. "At least 10 percent of the energy generated should be made available for purchase by the local municipality or their designee. If we in the Berkshires are asked to make some of the sacrifice, we should be able to get some benefits."

There is an overall need for a "more rational" approach, Downing said.

"Developers need a more predictable and repeatable process, and I think an expedited process that still retains environmental protections and local control is desirable."

Downing said the bill in its present form isn't quite where it needs to be.

"I have some proposals that could get it there, and we're still working on it," he said.

To reach Scott Stafford:
sstafford@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6241.


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