Chilmark forum tilts at windmills

A panel of Island community leaders and Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker blew some gale-force criticism Gov. Deval Patrick’s way at a forum on wind energy development Sunday night.

“It’s a big-bet strategy economically, a big-bet strategy financially, a big-bet strategy environmentally, and a big-bet strategy technologically,” Mr. Baker said of Governor Patrick’s push for wind turbines and Massachusetts-produced renewable energy.

About 200 people attended the event at the Chilmark Community Center hosted by POINT (Protect Our Islands Now for Tomorrow). Formerly known as “Let Vineyarders Decide,” the grass-roots organization was formed last September to protest the state’s Ocean Management Plan (OMP) for offshore industrial wind turbine development around Martha’s Vineyard.

The group, which has about 1,500 members, changed its name and reorganized over the winter to represent a broader constituency than just Martha’s Vineyard residents.

The purpose of Sunday’s forum was to offer a panel of community leaders and the audience an opportunity to discuss their concerns and ask questions regarding the state’s Ocean Management Plan (OMP) with Mr. Baker and Tim Cahill, gubernatorial candidates, and a representative from Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration.

Only Mr. Baker attended. Governor Patrick’s office said he would be campaigning in Western Massachusetts and unable to attend. Mr. Cahill sent a statement denouncing the Cape Wind project, read by the moderator.

“What will hundreds of thousands of turbines off our shores actually do for us?” POINT director and forum moderator Andrew Goldman of Chilmark said in his opening remarks. “We know about the detriments and costs – what are the benefits?”

Mr. Goldman kicked off the discussion with background about the state’s OMP. As shown on a map projected behind him, the final version, released on January 4 by Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles, designates only two wind energy areas suitable for commercial-scale development in Massachusetts.

One is off Cuttyhunk Island (Gosnold Wind Energy Area), part of the town of Gosnold. The other is south of Nomans Land (Martha’s Vineyard Wind Energy Area), part of Chilmark. The commercial-scale wind energy development areas could support up to 166 wind turbines.

In April the federal Department of the Interior approved the Cape Wind renewable energy project, with 130 wind turbines, destined for a 24-square mile area at Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound. Although near the Vineyard, the Horseshoe Shoal site is in federal waters.

The six panel members included Chilmark selectman Warren Doty, West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel, MVC commissioner E. Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark, former state representative, and POINT counsel Eric Turkington, commercial fisherman Captain Buddy Vanderhoop of Aquinnah, and Bettina Washington, Tribal historic preservation officer for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gayhead (Aquinnah).

Although the panelists spoke first and were asked to keep their remarks to 10 minutes each, a few extended talks pushed their portion of the program to an hour and a half. The words, “I’m not against wind turbines, but…” or variations thereof, turned out to be the evening’s most common refrain.

Nonetheless, Mr. Baker managed to pack a powerful punch in the 15 minutes left to him before he had to head for Vineyard Haven and the 9:30 pm ferry.

“I’m a data guy and a numbers guy, and always have been,” Mr. Baker said. “And my biggest issue with all the issues associated with offshore wind is, I’ve never been able to figure out how the math works.”

Mr. Baker has worked in both the public and private sectors in Massachusetts. In 1998 he became CEO of Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates (HVMA) and then was recruited by Harvard Vanguard’s parent company, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, to serve as its CEO in 1999.

Given his background, Mr. Baker aimed a critical eye at how wind turbine projects are financed and the return on the capital investment. Even with tax credits and ratepayer subsidies, Mr. Baker said the projects require 15- to 20-year contracts to recover the investment plus profit. And over the next 20 years, better technology may come along, Mr. Baker pointed out.

“Do we really think buying power from wind farms that cost two and a half to three times per kilowatt hour over what we’re already paying as the fourth highest cost of electricity is an economically smart bet for the next 20 years?” Mr. Baker asked.

Instead, he advocates diversification. Taking exception with the 2008 Green Communities Act requirement that renewable energy used in Massachusetts must be produced in the state, Mr. Baker suggested purchasing proven, sustainable, and cheap alternative energy from other sources, such as hydropower from Quebec.

“If somebody has already built a mousetrap, well, then take it,” Mr. Baker said. “You don’t have to invest in any of the risk associated with whether or not it works. Somebody else has already paid for that.”

He also criticized the wind energy siting bill pushed by Governor Patrick’s administration to meet a goal of developing 2,000 megawatts of wind power in the state by 2020. The proposed state law, which is currently stalled in the legislature, would streamline the permitting process for large land-based wind turbines by bypassing local boards. Mr. Baker said he does not think there should be a different permitting process for wind energy projects.

During the panelists’ earlier remarks, Mr. Knabel, the West Tisbury designee to the MVC energy work group, also expressed his strong objection to the wind energy siting bill and what he said has been a lack of process in the Patrick administration’s approach to impose utility-scale wind turbine development.

Mr. Turkington, who represented Martha’s Vineyard in the state legislature for 20 years, questioned the state’s decision to potentially surround the Island with almost 300 wind turbines.

Mr. Sederholm detailed the MVC’s current efforts to focus on planning for and regulating wind turbines that will fall under the commission’s and the towns’ jurisdiction.

Mr. Doty, chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association (MV/DCFA), and Mr. Vanderhoop, a member, said their group has not received answers on how Cape Wind’s turbines will affect fishermen, and as a result filed a lawsuit against Cape Wind on June 25.

As members of the Wampanoag Tribe, Mr. Vanderhoop and Ms. Washington said the location of wind turbines is also an issue for the tribe, because of cultural and spiritual considerations.

“It’s a shame they can’t find a better location for these, because this is a resort Island — put them off the Hamptons,” Mr. Vanderhoop said, drawing laughs and applause.

Dr. James Pritchard of West Tisbury, a professor emeritus of neurology at the Yale School of Medicine, provided the lone comment in favor of offshore wind energy development. He cited mortality rates linked to use of fossil fuels.