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Windchill factors

As turbine projects multiply, critics fight back

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / January 23, 2011

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In Plymouth, they’re worried about noise, flickering shadows, and the sheer size of the things. In Milton, they fear they might lose their panoramic views of the Blue Hills. In Hingham, they fret over possibly losing value on their pretty homes.

It’s not swarms of locusts they’re afraid of.

It’s power-generating wind turbines.

The debate over wind turbines — and where to put them — is a recurring hot topic, as the South Shore and Southeastern Massachusetts have become a hub for new wind energy projects. Proposals to build turbines are popping up all over, in seaside towns like Cohasset, Marion, Scituate, and Wareham, as well as farther inland in suburbs like Milton and Hanover.

Where there’s wind, there’s potential. And there’s plenty of wind along the coast south of Boston, making the region ripe for wind energy initiatives.

But turbines have also become a polarizing issue in many communities across the state, with people dividing into two distinct camps: supporters, who advocate for wind as a renewable source of power, and critics, who don’t want a giant windmill looming over their neighborhood and believe the structures don’t belong in residential areas.

Putting up turbines in Massachusetts is no easy feat: Permitting procedures can vary from town to town, and it’s not easy to find a good spot. And a single neighbor or small group of opponents can delay or even kill a project, no matter the amount of support it has in the rest of the community.

One municipal official quipped half-jokingly that it would be easier to build a nuclear reactor in his town than a wind turbine.

But that could soon change. Governor Deval Patrick set a goal of creating wind energy facilities capable of producing a total of at least 2,000 megawatts within the next 10 years. That would generate enough electricity to power more than 800,000 homes. (According to the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, a single 1-megawatt turbine on land can provide enough electricity to power up to 300 homes; if it’s offshore, where the wind blows harder and more consistently, it could power more than 400 homes.) And lawmakers are looking at passing legislation that would revamp the permitting process and make it easier to build the turbines.

Meanwhile, several turbine projects in communities south of Boston are trying to move forward amid local opposition.

In Milton, the Granite Links Golf Club is suing the town to stop construction of a wind turbine on town-owned land near the golf course. In the lawsuit, the private club says that the 480-foot-tall turbine proposed by the town would destroy golfers’ views of the Blue Hills.

In Marion, town officials have just begun exploring the possibility of erecting a wind turbine, and already the debate has spilled over to the editorial pages of the local newspaper, where residents argue about aesthetic qualities: Some say a windmill is no more offensive than an old-fashioned lighthouse; others say it would be like putting a 747 jetliner in the center of town.

In Cohasset, a proposal to build a 410-foot wind turbine on conservation land has met resistance from the neighboring town of Hingham. A group of Hingham residents turned out en masse at the public hearing and expressed concerns about how much noise the turbine would make and the visual impact it would have on the landscape.

In Quincy, a plan to build a wind turbine in the Fore River Shipyard never got off the ground. The project was supposed to be developed by Patriot Renewables LLC, a Quincy-based wind energy company that now conducts most of its business out of state.

“Trust me, we’d be local if we could,’’ said Lindsay Galbraith, project manager for Patriot Renewables.

The company would prefer to develop more wind turbines closer to home, but finding suitable locations in Massachusetts is just too difficult, she said. The Bay State is thickly settled, and land is hard to come by.

“Massachusetts is just pretty crowded, and it’s not a very good permitting environment,’’ she said.

Patriot Renewables abandoned its plan to build a wind turbine in the Quincy shipyard because the city’s strict zoning regulations capped the height of the turbine, which made the project no longer economically feasible, she said.

In Plymouth, which in 2005 instituted a new bylaw governing placement of wind turbines, seven different proposals have since surfaced, but so far, none has been built. One of the more recent plans came from an alternative-energy company that wanted to install two 100-meter-tall wind turbines on Hedges Pond Road. But neighbors objected, saying the turbines would wreck their views and lower their property values. They also worried how the blades might affect the sunlight or make noise.

And so Sustainable New Energy Inc. withdrew its proposal and went back to the drawing board. It also hired a company to knock on doors and solicit feedback from residents.

“We’re doing neighborhood outreach to see what is acceptable to neighbors,’’ said its president, James P. Sweeney, who hopes to come back to Plymouth officials next month with a new plan that is more palatable to skeptical residents. Sweeney said such negative reaction to wind turbines is fueled by “fear of the unknown.’’

But not all wind turbine projects face opposition. The town of Hull already has two wind turbines. The town of Scituate is putting up a wind turbine that would supply 50 percent of the town’s municipal power needs — and no one is complaining about that. And the town of Hanover is moving forward with plans to install a 50-meter-tall turbine behind the Pond Street water treatment plant. The town has yet to select a vendor; the turbine it chooses could come from as far away as India.

It’s been a learning experience for Hanover’s director of public works, Victor Diniak.

“It’s the first time I’ve had to deal with an overseas manufacturer,’’ he said.

The Hanover turbine would generate 225 kilowatts of power (1,000 kilowatts make up a megawatt), most of which will be used by the water treatment plant.

It’s taking longer than expected because manuals have had to be translated. Standards also differ from country to country. And not many manufacturers produce turbines that size. “It was supposed to be up and running in December. We’re hoping April or May,’’ he said.

Another wind turbine is slated to be installed at the Plymouth County Correctional Facility. It would be on a 40-acre site just southeast of the jail, bordered by Route 3 and an industrial park area.

“It’s kind of a no man’s land,’’ said John Birtwell, spokesman for the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s an ideal place for a wind turbine. It’s not near other residences.’’

The turbine would generate between 1.75 and 2.25 megawatts of power that would be used by the Plymouth County jail. The project has been in the works since 2005, and if all goes according to plan, the turbine could be up and running by the end of the year, said Birtwell.

Elsewhere, the Kraft Group recently put up a temporary weather station to see if it’s feasible to build a wind turbine at Gillette Stadium. The data will be collected for up to a year before any decisions are made.

And some citizens are taking the initiative. In Quincy, for example, a resident in Houghs Neck wants to attach two small wind turbines to his waterfront home.

In November, the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences hosted the “Social Challenges of Wind Energy Conference,’’ which examined the emotional backlash that often comes with wind power projects, especially when neighbors object to their location.

Experts at the conference suggested that developers educate their neighbors first and ask for their feedback, and keep them in the loop as much as possible.

James F. Manwell, director of the University of Massachusetts Wind Energy Center, said it’s difficult to find objective information about wind power. Much of the information comes from “the manufacturers, who want to sell turbines; the developers who want to install them; and the opponents who, for whatever reason, don’t like them.’’

One thing is for sure: No one can argue that commercial-sized turbines don’t have a visual impact on the landscape.

“They are big,’’ said Manwell.

Whether they look good or not is a matter of opinion.

“Turbines do have to be tall,’’ said Manwell. “The higher population density, the harder it is [to build them]. That’s no surprise.’’

He pointed to the town of Hull as an example of successfully harnessing wind power.

“The fact that Hull has them, and they’re close to people, and nobody’s going nuts, shows that it can be done,’’ he said.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

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