Large windmills started spinning last year in Gardner, but for the rest of the region, 2011 was a mixed bag for wind energy projects.
In Central Massachusetts, several community wind projects are in the study stage. A few, including commercial developments, have been at least temporarily sidelined by lack of wind, lack of long-term purchase agreements, or local opposition.
In Gardner, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections prison and Mount Wachusett Community College each began operating two 1.65-megawatt turbines in 2011, joining four other existing community-scale projects at: Nature's Classroom in Charlton, Princeton Municipal Light and Water Plant, Holy Name Central Catholic Junior/Senior High School in Worcester and Templeton Municipal Light and Water Plant, on land owned by Narragansett Regional School District.
The local picture looks a little different from the milestones reached by wind power nationally, according to the American Wind Energy Association. In Iowa and South Dakota, wind energy accounted for 20 percent of all electricity; the U.S. Departments of Energy and Interior streamlined processes to move significant offshore wind energy projects forward; and the cost of wind turbines dropped by as much as one-third over the previous two years.
Worcester County's gently rolling hills and river valleys are an obstacle for major wind energy development, according to Kate Plourd, communications manager at Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.
“We really see the wind resources along the coast or in the Berkshires, where the wind is,” she said.
Not having strong enough wind to generate power economically may hamper plans for a proposed turbine in Northboro, according to Town Engineer Fred Litchfield. The town recently released a feasibility study done by Sustainable Energy Developments of Ontario, N.Y. It showed that among several test scenarios with different sizes of turbines, situated at either Ball Hill or Mount Pisgah, the average wind speed at the height of the turbine's hub was around 5.5 meters per second. Massachusetts Clean Energy Center requires average wind speeds of 6 meters per second at a proposed site to fund development grants.
Mr. Litchfield said the payback period for the upfront capital costs would also take longer because the wind wasn't as strong as had been hoped.
“It still could be done, but it's just not as feasible,” Mr. Litchfield said.
The only test site that had an average wind speed of more than 6 meters per second was on Mount Pisgah, with a large Vestas 1.8-megawatt turbine as the model, which recorded 6.05 meters per second. But the report cautions: “ … from a community standpoint, however, this location may be the most controversial of those considered as significant construction would be required to install a wind turbine in what is viewed as a critically important conservation and public recreation area.”
The results of Northboro's wind feasibility study will be presented at a public meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall, 63 Main St.
“Technology could be changed in the next few years,” Mr. Litchfield said. “If we could get more energy from the site and tower, we wouldn't rule it out.”
Funding slowdowns from a variety of sources have been a drag on wind energy development as well.
Douglas Woods Wind Farm, abutting Douglas State Forest, had received approval for an 11-turbine, 27.5-megawatt commercial wind farm before a lawsuit from an out-of-state energy producer nullified its long-term power purchase agreement with NSTAR in 2010.
The lawsuit, filed by energy firm TransCanada, argued that the request for proposals for purchase agreements between energy producers and utilities under the state's Green Communities Act, which affected projects statewide, violated the Interstate Commerce Clause because it only allowed Massachusetts renewable energy projects to bid. All the signed agreements had to go back out to bid.
Since wind farms in such places as upstate New York, Vermont and New Hampshire are often on less expensive, less densely populated land and can harness more wind, the price of the power they produce is usually lower. Many Massachusetts commercial wind projects could not compete with out-of-state companies on price for the second round of bids with utilities.
Catherine Williams, press secretary for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said in an email about the revised purchasing rules: “We expect that both in-state and out-of-state projects will be a part of Massachusetts renewable energy mix and that some in-state projects were selected through the long-term contract procurement process.”
“They (Douglas Woods' developers) have all the local approvals; they just need to sew up the PPA,” said Douglas Town Administrator Michael J. Guzinski.
Stephen Zisk, Douglas planning/conservation agent, said the Planning Board has given American Pro Wind, the developer of Douglas Woods, a continuation until March for site plan review.
Money, controversy and a lawsuit have stalled plans for two proposed wind projects in Charlton.
Two requests for proposals for a 900-kilowatt turbine at Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High School in 2011 yielded only one bid.
“We decided for the time being to put the project on the shelf,” said Superintendent-Director David P. Pagnani.
“We are also waiting to hear what happens on the (Overlook) Masonic (Health Center) project,” he said, referring to a proposal for two turbines, about a mile away from Bay Path, which has been controversial among some residents.
Charlton Town Planner Alan I. Gordon said both projects underwent favorable site plan review.
“The general community … understood the details and were comfortable with it,” Mr. Gordon said.
But one abutter appealed the Planning Board's decision on the Overlook Masonic Health Center project, and the case is in Land Court.
The Charlton Board of Health also issued controversial regulations in 2011 that called for a 2,500-foot distance between the base of wind turbines and any existing dwelling or building, which would affect the already approved project designs. Mr. Gordon said the health board's regulation would apply to anyone seeking a building permit, and some have questioned the board's jurisdiction over wind energy projects.Several more projects throughout the region are in the feasibility-study phase.
In Auburn, a meteorological, or “met” tower, sits on the highest spot in town overlooking Home Depot on Washington Street. The tower has anemometers, wind-direction vanes, and temperature and pressure sensors that collect data on wind speed and other factors that would affect a wind turbine's power capacity.
Town Planner Adam R. Burney said the town will collect 12 months of data by July, and should have a report and recommendations from consultants in about a year.
He said, “I think that there's a hope that it will reduce our energy costs … over the lifetime of the turbine.”
The town's original intent is to own the turbine, if it's installed, but the consultants will further explore ownership and financing models.
Millbury Town Planner Laurie Connors said the town installed a met tower in August. The tower is gathering data at Butler Farm in West Millbury, a proposed site for one or two turbines.