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Nantucket: the wind never stops blowing…

2012 June 19

Whenever there is an article on energy in the Star Ledger (NJ’s state paper) or the Inquirer and Mirror (the weekly paper on Nantucket, where I spent my summers growing up), I can rest assured that my mom has clipped it and saved it for me. The stack of clippings will grow and be delivered to me in large stacks — energy knowledge dumps in plain old black and white ink. I spend a lot of my time studying energy on a large, global scale, so these clippings offer great perspective on state and local views of energy from the places where I grew up. In the case of NJ, it might be a piece about all of the action going on in offshore wind development. In the case of Nantucket, it was the long saga of Cape Wind, literally a decade of mostly op-ed clippings hotly debating what might be the U.S.’s first offshore wind farm, and a large one at that — 450 megawatts, equivalent to the average size of a coal-fired power plant. Over the course of ten years, there might be an op-ed every other month on this project, some in favor and some opposed. There were letters from ferry captains, property owners, politicians, and well, just about everyone who had to add their 2 cents (including me). Around times of major votes or permitting proceedings, there would be a higher frequency of op-eds.

Recently, however, the discussion on Nantucket has not been about a large-scale wind farm ten miles off the coast of Nantucket, but rather about a proposal for one large onshore wind turbine to be placed at the landfill on Nantucket. The proposal got off the ground in 2011, and by the end of the year, a serious debate had brewed over this $3.9 million project which would install a 300-some foot tall, 900 kilowatt wind turbine. There were energy study committee meetings, financial committee hearings, rebuttals, revisions, and some serious soul searching in the op-eds. I was amazed at how the community was knee deep in this topic, everything from the nitty, gritty technical details (capacity factor, net metering laws, see above…) to a confrontation of every typical anti-wind argument the opposition came up with (the aesthetics! the birds! the seizures! my blood pressure!).

The proposal would have had the town bankroll the project with taxpayer dollars, but the project would earn the town a decent return on its investment over the 20+ year lifetime. But there were many uncertainties in the financial assumptions of the project, since they could not issue an official request for proposal (RFP) to get more concrete cost and technical estimates until the initial proposal had been passed. Many voiced opinions in support of local wind energy, but reluctance to commit. It all felt very rushed. Financial Committee member Matt Fee (of Something Natural fame) summed it up: “It’s too quick, but I don’t want to stick a fork in it.”

Eventually, the proposal was rejected at a March 31 town meeting, with the opposition reportedly having spent $45,000 to fight the project. At the town meeting, local jokers Nantucket Improv were present and live-tweeting under the hashtag #ackTM, offering some humor to the scene.

This case is such a great example of what renewable energy is all about: a wonderful yet frustrating democratic mess. Renewable energy is best when produced locally, which calls into question many topics such as non-traditional financing models, siting issues, technology choices, etc. The fact is people on Nantucket get their energy from the mainland, out of sight and out of mind. A monthly power bill, but otherwise peace and quiet. This is particularly ironic, since Nantucket was once the center of energy production from whale oil, and it was an 1846 fire, fueled by piles of the whale oil, which brought the great port and industry to a temporary demise. The Whalers (the mascot of the local high school) actually already have a smaller wind turbine on their campus and seem to be saving a lot on energy costs!

Tobias Glidden, a 23 year old Nantucket native running for selectman (!!), expressed his views in the Inquirer and Mirror:

Nantucket is beautiful because we export our energy needs and ensuing pollution to other communities. We need to start taking responsibility for our energy consumption through energy production and conservation. We as Nantucketers who have sailed the seven seas in search of whale oil should, anove all people. understand the follow of foreign-energy dependence. We are fortunate to have a history that provides us with a clear precedent. This project is a step toward energy independence.

In the end, it was a rushed proposal, and may just need more time on the burner, be it to gather better estimates or to just let the idea of a tall onshore wind turbine sink in a bit. Renewable energy needs to be something the town can rally around. If the community is too divided on the issue, any small failure could cause a huge setback in the long-term trajectory for more renewable energy solutions on Nantucket. When Cape Wind was first proposed, I’d say the opposition was the majority, but now — as the project nears construction — the letterbag is mostly full of support. Once those turbines are up (fingers still crossed), maybe the opposition will begin to see the beauty of wind power as they ferry to and from the mainland. One thing is for sure: the wind never stops blowing in Nantucket, and public debate is a renewable energy resource you can always count on.

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Also, go see Cape Spin, the new documentary on Cape Wind, now in Boston, and starting in DC on this Friday June 22!

  • k

    it takes a great mom to raise a bright boy.

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