Essay: Toward a framework for Martha’s Vineyard wind energy regulation

Essay: Toward a framework for Martha’s Vineyard wind energy regulation

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In the coming year the Vineyard and Gosnold communities will be deciding what kind of wind energy development we want, both on land and offshore in state and federal waters. This is an update on preparation of a Wind Energy Plan for Dukes County, an effort started early this year by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, with the help of a work group made up of representatives of the seven towns of Dukes County, which includes Gosnold.

The fundamental dilemma is how to reconcile two important environmental and community goals: Increasing the use of renewable energy and protecting the unique character, ecology, and quality of life of a place such as the Vineyard.

For a few, the solution appears to be simple.

Some argue that in the face of disasters such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and increasingly evident worldwide impacts of climate change, the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels is overwhelming. So, renewable energy projects are highly desirable, pretty much anywhere, anytime, and the sooner the better. This viewpoint is that since the area around the Vineyard has some of the best wind resources on the East Coast of the country, the Vineyard has a duty to the nation to take full advantage of this potential to generate as much wind energy as possible. Also, exploiting wind energy should stabilize local and national energy costs, at least in the long run. Therefore, public authorities have a responsibility to allow any reasonable wind turbine proposal to move ahead quickly.

Others argue that Martha’s Vineyard and Gosnold are among the most environmentally significant places in the eastern part of the United States, with exceptional natural resources and remarkable scenic values that are at the core of the Island’s economy and quality of life. According to this viewpoint, these should not be sacrificed for industrial “wind factories,” which are unreasonably expensive and encourage wasteful energy practices to continue. The Vineyard has a duty to the nation to defend these precious places, as people in the past protected the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, from what can be seen as assaults by developers, who are perhaps trying to meet a public need, or perhaps are just trying to make money. Therefore, public authorities have a responsibility to keep wind energy projects out of this unique area.

Between these two extremes are positions that try to reconcile both concerns by encouraging, or at least allowing, appropriate wind energy development in certain locations, provided their negative impacts are minimized.

A fundamental question is how much wind energy we should aim to produce in and around the Vineyard. None? Enough to offset our own electrical or total energy usage? More?

The impacts of wind energy development vary from one Vineyard-area location to another, on land, in state waters, and in federal waters.

On land, the towns and MVC could adopt standards that make it easier to put up turbines. Alternatively, they could prioritize the protection of abutters and the Island’s character and environment, which would limit the potential number of turbines. Offshore, the Commonwealth’s Ocean Management Plan identified two commercial Wind Energy Areas near Nomans and Cuttyhunk islands, which could accommodate up to 166 large-scale turbines. The plan also authorizes an additional 17 community turbines elsewhere in the state waters of Dukes County. The Vineyard wind-planning effort is also looking at federal waters, both the vast area at least nine miles south of the Vineyard identified for commercial wind development by the Bureau of Ocean Energy (formerly the Minerals Management Service), as well as the closer band of federal waters likely to be reserved for community and innovative projects.

What are the pros and cons of locating wind turbines on land compared to in the ocean? It is possible to erect much bigger turbines in the ocean, where the wind is faster and steadier, and most impacts are lessened. However, the construction cost is higher, though this might be offset by increased energy production. As indicated in the Island Plan: “to produce the amount of energy we are likely to need, it would take 32 of the largest, utility-scale wind turbines (more than 550 feet high at the blade tip, presumably located well offshore in federal waters) at a cost of about half a billion dollars, whereas it would take an impractical 85,500 small, domestic-scale wind turbines (one for every ¾ of an acre of land) at a cost of $2.6 billion.”

The MVC staff and members of the Work Group have been researching wind energy to better understand the specific pros and cons of what wind turbines might mean for our community. In January, we produced a preliminary summary of information about a wide range of topics, including wind resources, noise, scenic and cultural impacts, natural resources, recreational activities, construction, operation, and decommissioning.

Since then, we’ve been looking in more detail at several issues. We identified criteria and are working on a series of maps of areas with special resources that appear to be more sensitive to the impacts of wind turbines. We are working on a way to identify the areas of the most significant scenic resources. We are trying to sort out sometimes wildly divergent information about the impact of wind turbines on noise, on birds, and on property values.

Starting next week, a series of biweekly work sessions will focus on some of these topics. A new website about the wind planning effort (found on the Island Plan website, www.islandplan.org), offers access to the documents we are working on, links to other useful websites, and a number of discussion boards that give you an opportunity to comment. A display, an open house, and a large public forum are being planned for the late summer.

There will be several results of this overall wind planning effort. First, we are preparing model regulations for possible adoption by the towns under the Island Wind District of Critical Planning Concern, now in effect in most of the land and waters of Dukes County. Second, the MVC will make a determination as to what constitutes appropriate scale for offshore wind energy development in state waters in Dukes County. Third, the MVC will identify the threshold for when towns should refer wind turbine applications to the MVC for review as Developments of Regional Impact, and will prepare a policy for review of these DRIs. In addition, the analysis carried out in this planning process will help the community comment on possible offshore projects in federal waters and can help towns in drafting or revising local regulations and standards.

How we deal with this question in the coming year will have a significant impact on Martha’s Vineyard and Gosnold for the coming generations.

Doug Sederholm of Chilmark is chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s Wind Energy Plan Work Group. Mark London is executive director of the commission.

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