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New England Interview: A Panel of Seven Offer Insight into the Evolving Drivers and Challenges Facing Wind Development in New En

Posted Jun 03 2011 3:00am
Date: 6/3/2011

The New England Wind Forum asked a panel of seven individuals from across New England with firsthand knowledge of wind policy and siting dynamics about the most important wind energy topics. The responses offer insight into the evolving drivers and challenges facing wind development in New England.

Question 1: What do you see as the two or three most critical issues affecting the dialogue on deploying wind power in New England?

Question 2: Assuming that the region's public policy objectives can only be met through wind comprising a material portion of our electricity portfolio, what are the potential solutions to these challenges?

Critical issues: I see the strong overarching issue in New England being the stark collision of global benefits and local impacts of wind development. All other issues—public acceptance, siting reform, environmental benefits, and environmental impacts—flow from it. Certainly the same tensions exist in other regions, but it seems to me, having been involved in wind energy across the United States since 1984, it is most acute here in New England. We New Englanders are highly educated, politically active, and very protective of the region's natural beauty—but we're also innovators and environmentalists striving to achieve energy independence and a sustainable way of life. Wind energy has forced an unprecedented examination of our priorities for the region. Do we eschew the intrusion of a technology that alters centuries-old landscapes, or do we accept wind energy for its generalized societal benefits? Public institutions are also facing these conflicting objectives when, for example, Department of Environmental Protection staff work to oppose a project to protect an endemic species while staff at the state house work to open up conservation lands for wind development. In the case of wind, we don't seem to have acceptable mechanisms in the New England states to balance the local and the global, human versus environmental impacts, or in this case, local species impacts with overall habitat benefits.

The dialogue in New England at the community level reflects these perspectives. At town meetings, we hear local homeowners voicing concerns about housing values, noise, flicker, and the visual impacts; we hear from earnest individuals who are deeply concerned about climate change and energy sustainability; and we hear government officials attracted to the economic benefits of a potential project for a town while also being unable to satisfy residents living close to the site that the benefits are worthwhile for them. From opponents we hear concerns for birds and bats interactions, while we hear from proponents about the benefits of reduced mercury pollution and acidification of habitats.

At the UMass Wind Energy Center, decision-makers in cities and towns often called on our staff to provide unbiased technical information as they reviewed proposed projects. It was clear they were frustrated by the lack of definitive information on siting issues, as they felt the burden of deciding between developers and opponents; they did not have tools with which to reconcile the local impacts and global benefits they observed.

New England is facing a future of chronically higher energy costs for electricity relative to the rest of the country. At the same time, we continue to build homes in rural areas or looking out over the ocean. And we continue to send a significant amount of money out of New England for coal or imported electricity. We need to do something to achieve a more sustainable future for ourselves—we need to find a solution.

Potential solutions: As a former Californian, I was fortunate in the 1990s to have been involved in a major environmental decision-making process in California: the Cal-FED Bay Delta Program. The decision-making processes employed by the Cal-FED Bay Delta Program—whose mission was to solve the problem of water allocation among cities, agriculture, and the environment in California—would be well-suited as a model for achieving equitable solutions for wind energy development in New England. Key features of the program included:

    Attracting and including every potential stakeholder to the process: there were essentially no organizations external to the process with a standing in the process Holding extensive dialogue, meetings, white-paper exercises, and public-input processes to establish fairness, credibility, and transparency in the decision-making process Giving a fair hearing to both major and minor stakeholders to hear their feared negative outcomes while respectfully soliciting the same groups for input on how to meet overall objectives Engaging in a program-wide educational effort to understand the physics, engineering, economics, and environmental aspects of the problem and proposed solutions Establishing a process to eventually agree on how to address the issue.

I believe the state governments of New England would be wise to convene a similar organization, choose an initial facilitator, and embark on a similar process. At the end, an emergent clear model for wind development in New England would achieve much greater buy-in from all sides, minimize debate, and move forward to finally establishing standard practices for a non-controversial process for wind energy development in New England. Right now, there is no source of technical information on human or environmental impacts of wind energy development that is credible to both sides of the debate in New England. Certainly there are experts on both sides, but the public is left to wonder who is correct. My proposed solution, which is compatible with the processes I've recommended above, is to work with the New England Congressional delegations to request that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) review the major purported impacts ascribed to wind energy technologies to finally set development guidelines for adoption by the states. The NAS is commonly asked to provide definitive recommendations on complex issues of national interest. The NAS report would support the definition of a "bright line" in decision-making where now there is only ambiguity. Certainly, wind development may suffer from newly crafted constraints, but I strongly believe that knowing in advance that a project meets the NAS criteria will allow good projects to go forward with much less development risk, thus benefitting wind energy development, project economics, and the public as well. Finally, I believe that establishment of a consensus-based decision-making organization to find a New England solution, allied with credible science-backed siting recommendations by the NAS, will eventually lead to a New England structure for adequately addressing local impacts while also enabling the overall societal benefits that wind power can provide.

Critical issues: In my mind, the critical issues affecting the dialogue can be boiled down to, "Where are the best wind resources, adequate transmission, and social acceptance?" For wind power to fully develop on a pace that would meet our national, regional, and state goals, we need to focus on the basics. First, we need to ask: "Where are good wind resources that could be developed right now?" Although we all hope that offshore wind power will develop soon, we need to focus on further developing land-based wind as the technology is "here and now" and ready for deployment. For land-based wind, the industry has reliable equipment available now, our region has done its homework in establishing clear and predictable siting and permitting frameworks for developers, and banks and financial institutions (that are lending) are comfortable with the business models in place. We have what we need to continue to build and grow new land-based wind projects now in New England.

Second, we need to ask, "Where is there adequate transmission?" In some places in New England, building new transmission lines is becoming as difficult, if not more difficult, than building the actual wind projects. While we need to build out new transmission at the same time and on parallel tracks as new wind projects, there are many places where wind and transmission are both available, and those are the sweet spots.

Last, we need to ask, "How can we do a better job at building social acceptance of this technology?" Experience from Europe and elsewhere tells us that it will take 10-14 years of education and experience living with wind turbines before it becomes generally acceptable. We're at the very beginning of this journey, and we need to do all that we can to ensure that it becomes an acceptable part of our lives, landscapes, and energy sources. As part of this last piece, however, we also need to figure out a way in which new investors—everyday people like you and me—can invest in a local wind project. Where there are widespread and strong, direct local benefits, opposition tends to be mitigated. We need to figure out new ways to grow the number of beneficiaries to community wind in New England.

Potential solutions: First of all, there is no silver bullet for fixing the major challenges to wind development in New England. There are a multitude of "solutions," all of which must be addressed and improved upon before we will see any widespread market and social acceptance of wind power here.

In response to the three critical issues that I posed, here are some additional thoughts as they relate to "solutions:"

First, siting: Even with good sites proposed and with strong state policy frameworks in place, wind developers are not yet connecting with the "hearts and minds" of local citizens. In Maine, for example, we have spent 2 years crafting predictable permitting paths for developers that include a requirement for "tangible benefits" to host communities, including a per-turbine annual fee. Despite this, wind project proponents are often still unable to connect and build trust with local stakeholders regarding the expected local benefits and costs of wind power.

Second, transmission: States like Minnesota have taken a different tack to the lack of transmission. In addition to studying where to propose the next big transmission line, they have also evaluated how best to use and tap into the existing lines. For instance, most community wind projects (including some of the smaller, commercial merchant plants) can use distribution lines, rather than transmission lines. That being the case, there are likely hundreds of megawatts throughout New England that could be built out on the current system. This can be accomplished in parallel to spending time and resources on building out new large transmission lines. This would have the added benefit of improving grid stability, reliability, and efficiency.

Third, social acceptance: I believe that small wind helps big wind; that community wind helps corporate-owned wind; and that we need to grow the number of all wind projects of all sizes and scales in New England. Each project then becomes an example that helps to educate the populace further about the capabilities of the technology, the flexibility and creativity of financial business models, and the potential for local and regional benefits. In contrast to other green power and fossil generation, community wind enables more co-ownership, independence, and long-term price stability than any other form of power. We can and should build on those themes.

Critical issues: There are three critical issues facing the development of wind facilities in New England. First, there has been minimal planning at both the state level and regional level in New England to identify appropriate locations for wind facilities. As a result, a substantial number of reports assessing potential environmental, economic, and historical impacts for each proposed location must be produced. This regulatory review process is both costly and time consuming for developers and government entities. Second, due to the relative dense development patterns in New England compared to areas such as the Midwest, there is an increased likelihood of conflict among user groups such as residents, environmentalist, preservationists, and recreationists. These conflicts often pit individuals against those who may have similar ideologies and consequently increase the resistance toward proposed projects. Third, if the United States is to meet the Department of Energy's 20% wind energy by 2030 scenario, offshore wind resources must be harnessed. Offshore wind facilities have a number of benefits due to the strong, consistent wind resources available that provide the opportunity to increase supply during peak-load periods. Additionally, their close proximity to electric load centers along the Atlantic seashore will decrease the transmission infrastructure and associated costs. However, offshore technology is currently limited to nearshore options with water depths less than 60 meters. In New England, deepwater technologies must be advanced to achieve these long-term goals.

Potential solutions: There are three potential solutions to these barriers. First, states within the New England region may choose to pursue creating Clean Renewable Energy Zones (CREZ) through a proper planning process that must include local stakeholder involvement. By pre-determining areas of development for wind facilities, the cost of analyzing potential impacts to the sites would be significantly reduced and the regulatory review expedited. CREZ planning should include an assessment of both terrestrial and offshore resources. Second, it is imperative to include a diverse segment of the affected communities' populace early and often in the planning process for any wind facility. Their inclusion will only assist in reducing possible resistance during the public review process. Third, deepwater technology must be supported. Research being conducted at the University of Maine and other institutions, along with European partnerships, will be essential to advancing deepwater wind facilities.

Critical issues: The three issues that dominate the debate over appropriate wind development in New England are noise, property values, and visual impact. Other important issues must be addressed, including the potential impact on birds, bats, and habitats. But noise, property values, and visual impact cause the most concern—and threaten to derail wind energy development.

The noise issue can be subdivided into annoyance that turbines are too loud to be located near residential areas and a concern that there is something unique about wind turbine noise that causes physiological health impacts on humans. The first issue is often dependent on the context of the turbine and the noise sensitivity of the listener. The second issue relies largely on questions about infrasound and the fear that it can cause health impacts.

The property value issue is difficult because people have a strong emotional attachment and financial investment in their homes. Real estate value has so many variables that this is a difficult issue to analyze. I've heard from many people who believe that no matter what studies suggest—common sense says that a large wind turbine would diminish nearby home prices. The intense emotion around the issue makes it difficult to discuss.

Concerns about visual impact are very often tied to concerns about property values. But sometimes, people just don't want their cherished views to change. Again, the emotional attachment makes this issue difficult to discuss.

Potential solutions: Given the natural resources that we have in New England, wind power will necessarily be a significant part of any renewable energy portfolio.

We believe that we can more efficiently find appropriate sites for wind energy development if we bring the right stakeholders together to address specific, well-articulated problems. Science can help find the most appropriate sites, but those sites will only be accepted if the right stakeholders have a meaningful role in the process from the beginning.

At Manomet, we are developing a resource to help local planning officials understand the key issues surrounding wind power development and the legal options available when drafting (or re-drafting) by laws or regulations. But these local wind regulations will only be effective if a wide variety of stakeholders are involved in the drafting. You need early involvement if the final product will be accepted.

This same principle applies to any scientific study on wind power issues. You have to have early involvement from key stakeholders or else the final product won't be effective.

Critical issues: "Wind energy" is not a single thing but an umbrella concept: there are different scales of wind energy projects and different uses of wind energy. Each of these subcategories has specific attributes, and what may work well for one subcategory may have little efficacy for another. The challenge is to figure out what is necessary to optimize appropriate development in each subcategory. One size does not fit all.

Potential solutions: For a century, we in New England have predominantly been energy importers; for the most part we haven't had to look at our landscape as a place of primary energy production—sure we have generation facilities, but the fuel mostly comes from elsewhere. This was not always the case. One of our challenges is to think as our forebears thought, but with the wisdom of experience and an appreciation for complexities. If wind energy is to become "a material portion of our electricity portfolio," we have get used to it, and we have to be practical about it. Right now the image of "wind energy" is loaded with symbolic value. Call to mind the image of a wind turbine in an advertisement in a periodical—does that image speak to how people actually live in our region? The transition from symbolic value to practical value is critical.

Critical issues: Regarding "how" to deploy wind energy, impacts of siting are the most critical issues. These siting issues most often boil down to visual impacts, noise impacts, and habitat impacts. Because of their size and the fact that in New England wind resources are found mostly on ridgelines, turbines are generally located in visually prominent places. This creates aesthetic issues for those in the surrounding area. While there are some areas with exposures that allow the turbines to be only partially visible from most locations, many sites have strong visibility from many locations. There are limited mitigation measures available—painting the turbines a color that blends in or selecting a lighting system that is radar activated. These measures help but don't hide the turbines.

The second critical issue is noise impacts. This seems to be an evolving issue for which there is a shortage of good information. While the higher-pitched sounds are muffled by distance and the rustling of the wind, it seems that low pitch and frequency noises from the larger rotating parts are also present. There can be some mitigation with insulation, but is that sufficient?

Finally, habitat seems to be a critical issue for ridge-top wind projects. Higher elevations contain a more fragile ecosystem, where it is possible that access roads may traverse through bear habitat, and turbines may extend into migration routes. Due to the limited history of development in these high-elevation areas, much less is known about the impacts of construction here. This makes those in charge of managing this habitat more cautious about approving projects with such potential impacts.

Regarding where to deploy wind energy, there seems to be a limited number of low-cost sites with a reasonable likelihood of success. This includes sites with an adequate wind resource, which are close to transmission, and with acceptable impacts. As these sites are used, development will become riskier and more costly. Transmission quickly becomes a major cost driver and a chicken-and-egg problem. Additionally, since wind is a low capacity factor resource, it is unable to utilize a transmission expansion to its fullest value.

Potential solutions: It seems that many jurisdictions are moving toward setback requirements. This would seem to hold promise as a means to guide wind development to appropriate locations and to enable those most affected to receive some sort of compensation from developers. While not a perfect solution, it offers some compromise and some certainty for developers.

Habitat is not my area of expertise, but it seems that continued monitoring and study of habitat can create a knowledge base that will enable more accurate assessment of impacts on habitat.

The transmission issue comes down to cost. If the ratepayers of the region are going to pay for transmission to these resources, then perhaps there should be some long-term arrangement for power from these facilities—perhaps through the repowering stage—to allow ratepayers to receive some value in return for this investment.

Critical issues: The first critical issue is that many parties to the discussion on wind energy tend to react in the absence of good information. The bulk of the resistance (in Connecticut) to wind projects appears to come from people who are afraid of the economic and health impacts of wind projects, based solely on what they have heard or what they are afraid might be the case. The arguments presented are almost exclusively emotional and not substantiated by any experience or factual information.

The second critical issue is the profusion of zoning ordinances. Connecticut's 169 municipalities present 169 different sets of hurdles for developers. The lack of statewide siting and permitting criteria puts a significant burden on both developers and the concerned public to prove their cases or defend their positions. The presence of the Siting Council in Connecticut may prove to be a path to timely permitting, but right now, objectors feel they have carte blanche to object to projects without having to meet any objective criteria for complaint.

Potential solutions: Federal installation guidelines might help, as would clear requirements for permitting in federally controlled waters or land.

Any solution should also include public education programs to familiarize the general population with the realities of wind turbine projects. Extensive use should be made of actual projects in New England, Europe, and elsewhere with an honest presentation of issues and lessons learned, both pro and con. In particular, the local economic benefits from the increase in the property tax base should be addressed.

Virtual net metering may also help make local wind turbines more popular. If the homes in the immediate neighborhood of a wind turbine could enjoy low-cost energy in exchange for waiving their objections, it might have a positive effect on attitudes.

Critical issues: The biggest elephant in the room is siting and the closely related questions about community acceptance and support. While changes in law and regulation can ease the way for projects, there will always be a need for community engagement and acceptance to build the wind component of our future clean energy portfolio.

The second big challenge, which is not discussed nearly enough, is the arcane business of interconnection and transmission of renewable energy like wind. This challenge takes many forms, ranging from the slow and expensive nature (compared to other regions) of moving through the "interconnection queue" managed by our regional grid operator for all generation to the more specific challenges of integrating variable resources into an electrical system designed and built around large fossil-fuel-fired power plants.

Finally, the financial and economic challenges of making wind (and clean energy generally) work in New England remain a threshold issue. The beauty of a fully restructured system (the situation in most of New England) is that wind is not inherently dependent on an integrated utility to prosper, but such a system means that work is needed to find a bulk purchaser of power from a wind project that is ready, willing, and able to sign a long-term purchase agreement.

Potential solutions: On the siting front, building a new energy infrastructure will require a cooperative relationship with communities that allows them to see the environmental and economic benefits of wind deployment and engages them in an honest dialogue about visual and environmental impacts. This kind of clear and honest engagement can effectively counter the corrosive effect of wind opponents from outside the community who parachute in and attack all projects.

In terms of interconnection, the key answer, as noted by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) commissioner (and Massachusetts resident) Cheryl LaFleur in recent public remarks in Boston, will be importing into the region the lessons learned from elsewhere in the nation—reforming our processes to reflect best practices in queue management, interconnection studies and processes, and variable energy resource integration.

Many solutions to the question of long-term contracting and financing for wind development are in various stages of development. The request for proposal (RFP) and negotiated contract model that is developing in a number of states (most notably in Massachusetts) could flower into an important mechanism that could be expanded and replicated. Likewise, the regional coordination on procurement contemplated by the New England States Committee on Electricity, while much more hypothetical, could provide a helpful tool. Clearly the time has come to accelerate our experiments with such mechanisms and then use the results from such experiments to craft durable and continuing models for paying for the wind generation that is part of the broad set of measures needed to craft a regional response to our energy and climate challenges.

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