Essay : Big Wind means big challenge for Martha's Vineyard towns
Big Wind is coming to Martha's Vineyard. And the next five months are key to influencing the outcome.
The state's 2008 Ocean Act required an Ocean Management Plan (Ocean Plan), released June 30. The Ocean Plan, still a draft, designates an area off Nomans Land and another off Cuttyhunk - and no others statewide, at this point - for commercial wind (Big Wind) projects in Massachusetts. It envisions at least 150 3.5-megawatt turbines, Cape Wind-style, at build-out. And investigation into additional wind development in federal waters, beyond, proceeds apace, according to the plan.
The 2008 Ocean Act - unlike its Ocean Plan - is a fait accompli. Pointedly, it already provides for final state review of Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC) siting decisions on Big Wind in state waters off Martha's Vineyard. Reviews would be by the state's Energy Facility Siting Board.
The state now proposes to upgrade the siting board's review authority over land-based Big Wind projects to match authority it already has over ocean-based ones.
The bottom line is that the Ocean Act and the Siting Reform Act are precedent-setting for the Martha's Vineyard Commission. Appeals/reviews of MVC decisions have always, heretofore, had to be argued, broadly, on the merits in the court system - not before a politically appointed administrative board.
Deadlines that affect Martha's Vineyard are piling up. The draft Ocean Plan becomes final by January 1 of next year. The Siting Reform Act is expected to pass by the end of this year. A taste of what's in store occurred this spring when the current state Siting Board ruled 7-0 to trump Cape Cod Commission action (or, some would say, "inaction") regarding Cape Wind and to support its application for permission to interconnect to the grid, on the Cape. The state board fast-tracked the process, issuing a so-called composite permit, covering everything Cape Wind needed at the municipal, regional, and state level. Final federal approval is pending.
There is reason to believe that direct talks with the state on wind energy siting and on Martha's Vineyard Commission jurisdiction could lead to the following improvements in the situation:
1. Proposed Energy Facility Siting Reform Act. The proposed Energy Facility Siting Reform Act should be revised to require that state siting standards for land-based Big Wind be consistent with the Martha's Vineyard Commission's enabling legislation (Chapter 831). This would effectively remove Vineyard Big Wind from the by right category and put it into the special permit category.
Siting standards for Big Wind are where the debate will center. The draft Siting Reform Act's siting standard for Big Wind aims to be based in science and fact - that is, quantifiable. Which is fine... as far as that goes. But making the standards consistent with Chapter 831, however, would now require consideration of impacts on Martha's Vineyard's economy, globally rare habitats, and historic vistas, some of which are not entirely quantifiable subjects.
It bears recalling that it was the state itself that created the Martha's Vineyard Commission in the first place, decades ago, to protect the broad goals and values set out in Chapter 831. But the way the proposed Siting Reform Act is now written, unless MVC siting standards match state siting standards - and are approved in writing by the board - final review of all land-based commercial wind can be appealed to the state board, where science will control.
By the way, the term land-based covers the land-based consequences of ocean-based turbines. And that brings these under the siting board's discretion, as well. For example, a commercial turbine developer off Cuttyhunk or Nomans might decide to bring their power cables across the Martha's Vineyard landmass on the way to the Massachusetts coastline. Would these lines go underground across Martha's Vineyard? Above ground? On high tension wires? We really don't know. But for Martha's Vineyard to play a decisive role in these matters will mean, again, redrafting the proposed Siting Reform Act to require that state siting standards be consistent with the goals ands values of the Martha's Vineyard Commission Chapter 831.
2. Draft Ocean Plan. It is too late to change the language of the 2008 Ocean Act, proper. However, its Ocean Management Plan is still a draft, under development, with five months to go before becoming final. The final plan will include siting standards for ocean-based Big Wind. And these, too, should be required to be consistent with the Chapter 831, the Martha's Vineyard Commission's enabling legislation. Active state/MVC discussions on revising the plan's draft language on siting standards are needed ASAP.
3. Community Wind on Martha's Vineyard. And what of community wind energy turbines? This category covers town-owned wind turbines for public benefit under two-Mw in size, generally up to 350 feet in height. Aquinnah and Tisbury are already investigating the feasibility of land-based community wind through the Mass Technology Collaborative (MTC). Proposals for these projects, in fact, have generally been land-based, because costs are lower than for ocean-based. The relative impact of land-based projects on the Martha's Vineyard landscape, economy, and character, however, is significantly higher than ocean-based.
The draft Ocean Plan envisions up to 10 community wind turbines in the waters around Martha's Vineyard. And it may, unwittingly, offer a solution rendering moot the question of impacts from land-based and/or near shore community wind turbine development. That solution is its requirement that commercial wind projects provide direct economic benefit to the communities in whose waters the projects are located.
What, though, if the benefits concept were redefined as regional/Vineyard economic benefit? And, community wind energy for Vineyard towns qualifies quintessentially as a benefit in the public interest. Therefore, the Ocean Plan's language should be revised to allow Vineyard towns, as a group, the
option of rolling their individual land based and/or near shore community wind projects into the much larger, ocean-based Big Wind projects envisioned by the state off Nomans and Cuttyhunk.
What does rolling community wind into Big Wind projects mean, exactly? The direct economic benefit offered by the Big Wind developer could be virtual - that is a commitment to supply the towns so much megawatts of power, through a metering arrangement. There would be no need to build individual/dedicated community wind turbines. The Big Wind developer would size his project, from the start, to accommodate the direct economic benefit negotiated with the towns. Integrated this way, Big Wind developers could take advantage of their projects' own significant economies of scale, efficiencies and infrastructure.
4. The politics of it. The Martha's Vineyard Commission has the staff and the overview to represent Vineyard towns in this complicated subject. But that is all it can do - represent its member towns. The towns need to meet in their All-Island Selectmen's body to reach an agreement on formally supporting the MVC as lead interface with the state on wind developments. A summit between member towns and the MVC commission and staff should be scheduled ASAP. Otherwise events are likely to pass us by, and we lose by default.
Carlos Montoya is a member of the Aquinnah planning board and a leader in the effort to explore a town-owned wind turbine.