"...like trying to put 12 beach balls in an egg carton"
HYANNIS — It's not every day that a phalanx of state lawmakers descends on Cape Cod to hear from the public on any issue, much less a topic as controversial as wind energy.
But that was the case for eight hours Thursday at Barnstable High School as the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Energy and Utilities heard from residents on a series of bills related to permitting wind turbines.
The primary legislation before the committee, known as the Wind Energy Siting Reform Act, has garnered stiff opposition — mostly on the Cape and in the Berkshires, two areas state officials have targeted as prime locations for wind energy production. The proposed law would simplify permitting for wind energy projects over 2 megawatts, consolidating local decisions in a single board and streamlining appeals.
During the daylong hearing, committee members, joined by almost every member of the Cape delegation, heard from dozens of speakers who alternatively touted hopes for a clean energy future and the horrors of living near large wind turbines.
"Too big, too close," said Neil Andersen of Falmouth, where neighbors of a turbine located at the town's wastewater treatment facility have complained vociferously about detrimental health effects caused by noise and shadow flicker from the machine's operation.
A second turbine at the treatment plant is expected to go online soon and another turbine of the same size is operating nearby on private property.
"All of them 1.65 megawatts and 400 feet tall, and all of them improperly sited," Andersen said.
Building more turbines on the Cape "would be like trying to put 12 beach balls in an egg carton," he said. "They do not fit."
Committee co-chairman Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, said the committee would ask the state Department of Environmental Protection and the state Department of Public Health to meet with Falmouth residents as part of a review of health impacts from the operation of wind turbines.
"We have just learned of this request today, and we are looking forward to discussing this idea with the committee," DEP spokesman Edmund Coletta said Thursday night.
A level playing field
Supporters of the proposed legislation testified that green-energy jobs, the need to combat climate change and the ability of wind energy to stabilize energy prices were all reasons to support the measure.
"Good projects are being held at bay too long," said Sue Reid, Conservation Law Foundation's Massachusetts vice president and director.
The bill helps to level the playing field between wind energy projects and fossil fuel projects, she said, adding that it doesn't do so completely.
All energy sources have trade-offs, including severe health problems caused by the burning of fossil fuels, she said. Solar energy, meanwhile, is not as cost efficient as wind, she said.
Cape officials raised concerns about the bill shifting control from the host of boards now responsible for reviewing wind energy projects — such as planning boards and conservation commissions — to a single local board.
A similar concept included in the Hazardous Waste Facility Siting Act in 1981 didn't work, Bourne Town Administrator Thomas Guerino said.
"Simply dusting off a piece of legislation from earlier times and inserting new intent is not reassuring to cities and towns of the commonwealth," he said, reading a letter from the Bourne Board of Selectmen, which has gone on record opposing the wind energy siting reform legislation.
The bill is not well-written, and the committee should not report it out favorably, Guerino said.
"I don't believe the town of Barnstable needs these standards, needs your goals or needs your authority," Barnstable Town Councilor Ann Canedy said, clarifying that she spoke only for herself because the town had not taken a position on the legislation. Barnstable already had standards in place for wind energy projects, she said.
Issues of control
State officials did their best to counter the contention that the bill would usurp local control.
"There is nothing in this bill, and I mean nothing, that will take away local control," said Barbara Kates-Garnick, energy undersecretary at the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
If a local board rejects a project, the developer may appeal to the courts, according to the bill's language. If the local board approves a project, opponents may appeal to the state Energy Facilities Siting Board and then to the state Supreme Judicial Court.
Gov. Deval Patrick has set a goal of 2,000 megawatts of wind energy in the state by 2020. Three-quarters of that energy is expected to come from offshore projects and 25 percent from land-based wind turbines, said Steven Clarke, state assistant secretary for renewable energy.
If the average turbine generates 2 megawatts of energy, the governor's plan would call for 250 land-based turbines across the state, he said.
Given that testimony from state officials at a similar hearing in Hancock indicated 188 turbines were possible in the western part of the state, state Rep. Randy Hunt, R-Sandwich, asked if that would mean about 50 turbines on the Cape.
"It is a possibility," Kates-Garnick said.
Mistrust at local level
Though much of the testimony focused on concerns over local control. committee co-chairman Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem, proposed another reason for the opposition: a mistrust of local government.
Though Kates-Garnick said establishing local wind energy siting boards would be voluntary, Cape lawmakers and other speakers seemed unconvinced.
State Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown, said her reading of the bill indicated local boards would be required in areas considered to have high wind energy resources, such as Cape Cod.
A spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs wrote in an email to the Times that agency officials would look into the discrepancy and report back to the committee.
Despite her concerns, the hearings and legislative process surrounding the bill were far better than what occurred last year, when there was little opportunity for study or changes to its language, Peake said. A final version of the bill failed to make it to Patrick's desk for his signature before the end of the formal session.