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Wind Siting in New England: Bridging State Goals and Local Concerns

June 3, 2011

Since 1997, New England states have implemented diverse renewable energy programs and incentives. As market participants and state regulators seek to fulfill renewable energy policies, however, tensions often arise at the local level when wind projects encounter the practical challenges of obtaining construction permits and garnering public acceptance. This article highlights some of the issues and tensions in the region and lays the groundwork for the interviews on critical issues and potential solutions for wind energy deployment in New England.

Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island each have a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). RPS targets range from 10% to 20% of retail electricity sales delivered from qualifying renewable energy sources (defined differently in each state) by 2020. Vermont's Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development (SPEED) Program encourages the state's utilities to enter long-term contracts with renewable energy generators and also includes a Standard Offer Program that provides a technology-specific, cost-based tariff rate to projects of no more than 2.2 megawatts (MW), roughly a quarter of which will come from wind generators. In addition to these statutory programs, some of the New England states have also developed policies or goals to help meet their objectives.

  • In 2008, the Maine Wind Power Task Force recommended that the state host 2,000 MW of wind energy by 2015 and at least 3,000 by 2020. This recommendation was accompanied by the designation of an expedited permitting area.
  • In 2009, Massachusetts set a goal of developing 2,000 MW of wind energy generation by 2020.
  • Rhode Island and Maine have established goals for offshore wind, as well.

In the nearly 10 years since the first RPS was put in place, it has become evident that the issues surrounding local permitting and public acceptance are every bit as important as establishing state targets and related policies. In the past several years, the local dialogue regarding siting and potential impacts often rises to a fever pitch, particularly when commercial-scale wind turbines are being considered. This often puts local action directly at odds with state objectives. Local select boards, zoning boards, and interested citizens must strive to balance community economic development, increased tax base, sustainability, expanding energy needs, the environmental impact of different power generation options, and energy security benefits with respect for residents' concerns over real or perceived human, aesthetic, economic, or environmental impacts.

During the past 2 years, dozens of wind energy ordinance proposals have been circulated at the state and local levels. In many cases, towns have considered or implemented moratoria. Such pauses buy necessary time for localities to develop guidelines that ensure a more uniform and sustainable approach to the wind development process and strike the right balance between benefits and impacts. For others, these guidelines serve as a step toward effectively excluding wind deemed by decision-makers to be incompatible with the local character of place. On such matters, public opinion is rarely uniform. Citizens from within and outside of the communities strive to sway the opinions of decision-makers in processes that often grow contentious and litigious. While surveys regularly indicate broad public support for wind power, pitting diffuse benefits against the perception of more acute impacts to abutters reaping little direct benefit may leave developers of even well-sited projects on the defensive.

In such debates, facts often give way to unfounded assertions and hyperbole, and objective, credible information on impacts of wind power to aid decision-makers in finding the right balance may be hard to come by. Even with a lengthy and deliberate process, however, consensus is far from certain. In some locations, the consideration of site-specific impacts may prevent a project from obtaining permits. In other cases, the dialogue results in the granting of local permits and a project that is generally embraced. In still other areas, permits are granted, but projects continue to be fought even after they are placed in service. Support for and objections to wind energy may originate within a community or may be introduced by individuals from other communities. This phenomenon underscores the regional nature of wind energy issues. The interviews demonstrate the range and importance of the wind energy topics currently under discussion in New England.

—Julie Jones