Wampanoags evaluate wind power on tribal lands

Potential locations for a wind turbines studied in a feasibility study commissioned by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)
Photo courtesy of Boreal Renewable Energy Development

Potential locations for a wind turbines studied in a feasibility study commissioned by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)

A study of wind energy feasibility concludes that vigorous winds blow over the tribal lands of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), and if they are harnessed they could provide the tribe with financial and environmental benefits.

Tribe planner Durwood Vanderhoop presented the results of the feasibility study, commissioned by the tribe, in a public meeting Friday at the tribe’s administration building. Sixteen people attended. The federal and state grants that funded the study require public participation, according to Mr. Vanderhoop.

The tribe has made no decision to move forward with a wind project. “We did the study to see whether we wanted to go ahead,” Mr. Vanderhoop said. “There has been no vote of the tribal council.”

The study also illustrates obstacles that could block a utility scale wind project.

“The pursuit of turbine installation will need to be scrutinized,” the study, by Boreal Renewable Energy Development, says. “The visual and other potential impacts on tribal members may be deemed to be excessive. Also there are many potential pitfalls to a successful installation. Permitting, transportation, interconnection, ownership and financing barriers will have to be overcome. Nonetheless, the environmental and economic benefits of a land-based turbine may be very compelling to the tribe and could be a project they wish to pursue.”

The 148-page study (available on mvtimes.com) provides data on the financial feasibility and environmental impact of several possible configurations of a utility scale wind energy project on tribal lands. The potential projects range from one 225-kilowatt turbine at an installed cost of $1.9 million, to two 1.5 megawatt turbines at an installed cost of $5.3 million.

To assess the impact of noise, visual, and permitting issues, much of the study focuses on the largest configuration.

The study evaluated two sites. The first is near the tribal administration building on Black Brook Road. The second is off Moshup Trail, at a former salvage yard commonly known as the site of an old U.S. Coast Guard LORAN tower. From August 2008 to August 2009, the study’s authors gathered data on wind speed and direction from a meteorological (MET) tower at the second site.

Money matters

The study calculated installation costs and potential returns for the various configurations of turbines. the installation costs included estimates for improving the existing Island power lines, transporting the turbine parts to the site, and road improvements that may be necessary. The study makes no mention of decommissioning costs.

Higher capacity turbines are more expensive to construct and maintain, but provide a quicker and larger return on investment, according to the study.

In general, the payoff is calculated in terms of the cost to produce the energy independently, including installation and operating costs, minus the savings realized by not buying electricity from a public utility. The study predicts, for example, that before any tax incentives or grants are figured in, the smallest configuration evaluated, a 225-kilowatt turbine, would pay off its $1.9 million installation cost in 17.5 years.

The largest configuration studied, two 1.5-megawatt turbines, would cost $5.3 million to install, but would pay itself off in 7.1 years. In this option, the turbines would generate revenue from the sale of excess electricity. After the operating and installation costs are repaid, a table in the study shows two 1.5-megawatt turbines would generate from $1 million to $2 million annually, or a total of approximately $12 million over the life of the turbines.

Grant funds available

The Tribe is eligible for up to $380,000 in competitive grants from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. The grants are funded by a surcharge on utility bills. According to the Clean Energy Center, the average residential ratepayer pays $0.29 monthly to help fund clean energy projects. Federal energy grants and tax incentives may also be available and could reduce the installation costs and shorten the payoff time.

The tribe’s return on investment will depend on the structure of the entity which owns the turbines. The tribe could be the sole owner of the project, taking all the risk, and reaping all the benefits. It could partner with a developer to share the risks and benefits. Or it could play a passive role, charging a royalty to a private developer to manage the entire project.

In 2006, the tribe received a $50,000 grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MTC), funded by a surcharge on utility bills. It also got a grant of $82,000 from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to conduct a feasibility study on site locations. Mr. Vanderhoop said the tribe’s own funds were also used, but he did not cite an amount.

The study also estimates the environmental benefit. A 1.5-megawatt turbine installed on tribal lands would produce no harmful emissions. That is the equivalent of taking 345 automobiles off the road, according to the study. The equivalent amount of electricity produced by burning fossil fuels would produce 2,244 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Sound and fury

According to data collected from the MET tower, the average wind speed over a calendar year was 14.9 miles per hour, at a level of 50 meters (164 feet) above the ground. Factoring in historical wind data from the Martha’s Vineyard Airport, the study’s authors estimate the long-term average wind speed at that height will be higher, 16.6 miles per hour. At a height of 80 meters, or 262 feet, the estimated average wind speed is 19.1 miles per hour. The wind was strongest during the winter months.

“The wind resources are superb compared to other land-based sites in the Commonwealth,” the study says.

The study assessed the sound level impact by taking measurements on July 28 and July 29 of this year. The study’s authors first measured ambient sound at specific distances from the two sites evaluated. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) considers an increase of 10 decibels above ambient sound the limit of acceptable noise from a wind turbine. The study cites measurements at nine separate locations. Based on available data on the noise level of wind turbines, the study predicts no homes near the turbines would experience an increase of more than 10 decibels.

Measurements at the property line of the nearest private landowner, the first site was measured at 20 decibels above ambient sound, and at the property line nearest the second site at 18 decibels above ambient sound, well above the DEP standard in both cases.

“At this point there are no residences there, but there could be in the future,” Mr. Vanderhoop said. “There are definitely sound issues. That’s a concern to everybody.”

Seeing, believing, connecting

The visual impact of wind turbines in the rural town troubled some of those who attended the information session. The study included visual simulations of how a 1.5-megawatt turbine on an 80 meter (262 feet) tower would look from various vantage points. The pictures simulated the view of the turbine from Menemsha Harbor, the Aquinnah Circle, and Moshup’s Trail. (visual simulations available here)

The study also notes other challenges, including the difficulty in transporting the turbine components. The largest part of the structure is the blades. The three blades would have to be barged to Vineyard Haven, and then transported nearly the entire length of State Road. Road alterations, as well as bridge and culvert improvements to the roads may be needed. The existing power infrastructure from Beetlebung Corner to the turbine sites would need a substantial upgrade. A rough estimate of the cost to connect two 1.5-megawatt turbines to the Island’s power infrastructure is $1.1 million, according to the study.

Regulatory issues

The study notes the long and divisive dispute over jurisdictional issues between the tribe and the town of Aquinnah.

“Given that wind power projects are often controversial and can generate significant opposition,” the study says, “it is reasonable and practical for the Wampanoag to assume that both the town of Aquinnah and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts may well seek to assert permitting jurisdiction over the Wampanoag wind project. How the town responds to the assertion of jurisdiction is a matter of tribal policy.”

While the study’s authors said resolution of the permitting issues is beyond the scope of the study, they did recommend additional legal counsel for all future wind turbine permitting activities relating to the town.

Wind direction

At the same time that the tribe has been exploring land-based wind power, it has objected to the Cape Wind project on Horseshoe Shoals in Nantucket Sound. Members of the Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag tribes claim that the wind farm would interfere with their view of the rising sun, an important element in tribal ceremonies, they say. They say the wind farm will be built on a shoal that was dry land thousands of years ago and could include important elements of Wampanoag culture and history.

“I can only comment for myself, I can’t speak for the tribe,” Mr. Vanderhoop said. “But I think the tribe has tried to get the message out that the tribe is not necessarily against wind. We need to decide whether this is right for us, right culturally.”

The U.S. Department of the Interior, in its April 28 decision approving the Cape Wind project, said it would consider payments to mitigate any cultural or historic impacts affecting the two tribes. The decision proposes mitigation measures that include up to $200,000 per year for the 21-year life of the project, split equally between the two tribes for “to be identified” cultural and/or historical interests.

The state’s Coastal Zone Management office will also administer a $3.5 million pool to address the cultural and historic impacts to Nantucket Sound. The tribes could also tap that.