How the wind blows in Vinalhaven

As Martha’s Vineyard residents contemplate the possibility of wind farms, whether modest or extensive developments on land and offshore, it may be useful to turn a curious eye to Vinalhaven, Maine, an island that is home to New England’s largest coastal wind-power facility.

With three land-based wind turbines up and running since last November, Vinalhaven offers an example of a finished project and the benefit of lessons learned in hindsight.

The Vinalhaven community, at a town meeting, overwhelmingly supported the Fox Islands Wind Project (FIWP) with a vote of 384-5 in favor. Ever since the large turbines started spinning, however, some residents who live closest to them complain that the level of noise is much worse than anticipated.

Wind project nuts and bolts

The Fox Islands, Vinalhaven and North Haven, are located in Penobscot Bay approximately 12 miles from Rockland in mid-coast Maine. Like the Vineyard, the two islands were dependent on electricity delivered via an underwater cable from the mainland. One of the wind project’s main goals was to generate enough electricity for the two islands’ approximately 2,000 year-round residents to lower painfully high electric rates, two to three times higher than the national average.

The Fox Islands Electric Cooperative (FIEC) is owned by the Vinalhaven and North Haven ratepayers. The wind turbines are operated by Fox Islands Wind (FIW) LLC, a subsidiary of the electric co-op.

The three General Electric 1.5-megawatt turbines stand 388 feet tall, from the ground to blade tip, on a 25-acre parcel of land on the northwest, sparsely populated side of Vinalhaven. Two local residents, Bill Alcorn and Del Webster, purchased the site and leased it to the wind power project at below-market rates.

The three turbines are expected to generate 11,605 megawatt hours of electricity per year, slightly more than the two islands use. About 50 percent of the electricity generated by the turbines will be used on Vinalhaven and North Haven. When the turbines generate more power than is being used by the electric co-op, the co-op sells the excess to the New England power grid. When energy use on the two islands surpasses wind-generated energy, the co-op buys energy from the mainland.

That means the co-op will also need to purchase about 40 percent of its power needs over the submarine cable, according to the Fox Islands Wind Project (FIWP) website. Luckily, the co-op invested in a new project in 2005, which made the wind project viable since it still depends on extensive use of the submarine cable. Because the cable from the mainland handles electricity both to and from the islands, FIW can sell surplus mega-watt hours to Central Maine Power, the islands’ electricity supplier, and stabilize the residents’ electric bills.

Wind power economics The electric co-op requested assistance in pursuing the wind power project from the Island Institute, a non-profit organization based in Rockland. George Baker, a professor at Harvard Business School and vice president of Community Wind at the Island Institute, helped complete a preliminary economic analysis for the co-op.

The wind energy project involved a complex financing structure. FIW was created as a limited liability, for-profit company to sell power and renewable energy credits through use of the submarine cable. The complicated project also involved permitting and detailed environmental impact and engineering studies.

Mr. Baker, on leave from Harvard, subsequently was appointed chief executive officer of FIW. He assisted in the permitting process and helped with community involvement and funding.

The turbines cost about $14.5 million. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service Electric Program provided a low interest $9.5 million loan to FIW for the project and another $500,000 loan to cover additional costs. Mr. Baker and the Island Institute secured a commitment from a Maine company for an approximately $5 million investment in exchange for renewable energy tax credits. The federal government grants those to encourage investments in renewable energy projects, the FIWP website explains.

How the wind blows As of February 1, the three turbines produced more than two million kilowatt hours of electricity and cut the cost of the energy portion of the average ratepayer’s bill by half in December 2009, compared to the previous December, according to an article by Dave Tyler in The Working Waterfront’s Feb.-March 2010 issue.

“In general, the electric rates are lower than they’ve been in five years, and the community is ecstatic about that, Mr. Baker said in a phone call with The Times Monday. “We’re getting electricity at about five and a half cents [per kilowatt-hour] right now. That’s after paying all of our expenses and all of our financing costs.”

That cost is for the energy portion of electric bills. The cost of transmission and distribution is included in a separate delivery charge.

“From a business point of view, overall, we’re very pleased,” Vinalhaven town manager Marjorie Stratton said in a recent phone call. As a member of the electric co-op board, she noted, “The turbines are making a lot of change in electric bills.”

Addison Ames is a fifth-generation Vinalhaven native and a lobsterman by trade. He also serves on the electric co-op board. He recalled that after Hurricane Katrina when energy prices skyrocketed, some Vinalhaven residents told the co-op board their electricity bills were as high as $500 a month.

“We were between a rock and a hard place on energy prices,” Mr. Ames said.

In the four months the wind turbines have been operating, he added, “Some homeowners said their bills have come down $50 to $60 a month, and the school saved about $1,000.”

Both Mr. Ames and Ms. Stratton, however, expressed concern about residents who are bothered by the wind turbines’ noise.

“Most of the noise complaints have come from people within the half-mile range,” Mr. Ames said. “Somewhere between one and three miles, the noise goes away. Before our project, no one was specifically asking that question. I was a little surprised, because at a mile away, I thought noise would be a non-issue.”

According to the Portland Press Herald, FIW purchased a home and two vacant properties that were adjacent to the wind turbine towers. A fourth owner turned down a buyout offer, seeking more money.

“We put the turbines in as remote an area as we could get on this island, at one of the higher points, and close to the grid,” Mr. Ames explained. With a Mainer’s typical succinctness, he added, “I think if you can get man and machine away from each other, it’s better.”

The co-op offered to buy properties in a subdivision that was within 1,000 to 1,500 feet of the turbines, Ms. Stratton said. There are about 15 to 20 homes within a half mile of the turbines.

“Out of 1,300 year-round residents, the majority of people are really happy with the project,” Ms. Stratton said. However, since about a half-dozen households were upset with the amount of noise, she said the co-op board has tried to respect their comfort levels and address the issue.

A group of residents who live within half a mile to a mile and a half radius of the wind turbines formed the Fox Islands Wind Neighbors as an organized protest against the noise.

In response to their complaints, the electric co-op board conducted an experiment in February in which the wind turbines were randomly slowed down at night for one month to see if it made a difference in noise, which also means a reduction in generated energy. The results of the experiment are being analyzed by researchers from the Lawrence Berkley Laboratory, with financial support from the Department of Energy. Accentech Inc. of Cambridge monitored the sounds and collected data from log-books kept by residents who live near the turbines. The co-op board is also considering sound baffling or insulation in the turbines.

On Monday, Mr. Baker said personnel from the U.S. DOE National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will be in Vinalhaven next week as part of a $30,000 grant to work on the island’s wind turbine sound issues.

“We’re also working on a grant with the Maine Technology Institute for active sound cancellation technology,” he added. “We’re hoping NREL will give us some feedback on that, as well, including possible insulation or sound deadening material in the turbine nacelles.”

General Electric also is considering testing a new type of blade technology, not yet on the market, on the Vinalhaven wind turbines, Mr. Baker said.

“The turbines are generating lots of electricity and lowering everybody’s electric rates, so the context is really tough, because the community is really happy right now about it,” Mr. Baker added. “But a small number of our neighbors are not, and we are working hard to deal with that.”

Although it will take about a year’s worth of data to gauge Vinalhaven’s wind resources, Mr. Baker said so far, “It has been as good as or better than projected.”

Story screened for Islanders

A 40-minute screening of uncut clips about Vinalhaven was aired April 14 by Liz Witham and Ken Wentworth, the producers and directors of Film-Truth Productions, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre.

A target audience of about 35 included Martha’s Vineyard Commission members, town planning board members, and people involved with energy issues Island-wide.

Ethan Hall and Art Lindgren, two Vinalhaven residents interviewed in the film clips, attended the screening to share their experiences afterwards and answer questions about wind turbine noise. George Baker, chief executive officer of Fox Islands Wind LLC, also was in the audience and answered a few questions.

Mr. Lindgren and his wife Cheryl live about 2,400 feet from the turbines, and Mr. Hall about 3,500 feet.

Playing a recording of wind turbine noise taped at his home, Mr. Lindgren emphasized the turbines’ detrimental economic effects on homeowners like himself. “Nobody said our property value is going to drop by half, here’s $250,000, or a half-million dollars, or a million dollars,” Mr. Lindgren said. “We’re paying so people can get $10 off their electric bills,” he added.

Mr. Hall said General Electric told residents that from 1,000 feet away, the wind turbine noise would sound like a quiet conversation taking place in a living room. Instead, he described the turbines’ sound as a “palpable experience,” with rhythmic pulsations he can feel thumping in his chest as the blades turn. Other people interviewed in the film clips likened the turbines’ whooshing sound to a jet airplane heard off in the distance. Mr. Lindgren urged Vineyarders to “do your homework” before making any wind turbine siting decisions.

In a follow-up interview after the screening, Mr.Wentworth and Ms. Witham said they were asked to explore the subject of wind energy development on- and offshore, after attending a Martha’s Vineyard Commission meeting about wind turbines and siting considerations.

The Vinalhaven footage included several uncut interviews of residents upset by the wind turbines’ noise. It will be edited and included in a feature-length documentary that looks at society’s desire for a sustainable environment, Mr. Wentworth said. He and Ms. Witham already have put more than 5,000 hours of research into the subject of energy. They also plan to make a trip to Samso, a Danish island that achieved energy self-sufficiency through the use of wind turbines, solar panels, and nonpolluting straw-burning furnaces.

As part of their community outreach, they invite Islanders to submit any questions they have about energy by email to info@film-truth.com