Guest Commentary: Hull proves communities will accept wind power

01/19/2004 07:41 AM

By Malcolm Brown

It’s encouraging, as Mass High Tech recently reported (“Northwestern Massachusetts welcomes wind power” Dec. 1-7, 2003), that a large wind farm is likely to be built in the towns of Florida and Monroe. At the same time, I’m concerned that the highly publicized criticisms of the Cape Wind project by Sen. Edward Kennedy and others may result in a blanket rejection of wind energy in more populated areas, especially Greater Boston.

That would be a terrible loss for Greater Boston communities because of wind’s ability to reduce community energy costs, improve air quality and reduce our dangerous reliance on foreign energy sources. In fact, the state’s Renewable Energy Trust (RET) just announced a $4 million program, including funds, technical assistance and detailed wind maps, to help communities tap the wind.

You need only come to Hull to find a powerful example of how wind can gain public acceptance. Hull Wind 1 is the first commercial-scale wind turbine on the coastline in the continental United States, and North America’s first urban turbine.

The turbine has been online since December 2001. The 1.5 million kilowatt hours it produces annually cancels our town’s street lighting and traffic light bills and reduces the amount of electricity our Municipal Light Board must buy from conventional, privately owned generators. Unlike turbines built out to sea, ours is sited right by the high school, so sound and aesthetic issues were crucial. Standing under the turbine today, people talk in normal tones, a soft “whoosh” above their heads.

So what are our approach’s broader implications?

First, you must get the community involved early and often. We did lots of explaining and public outreach to help residents visualize what it would look and sound like: mailings with electric bills, public meetings, cable TV coverage and frequent updates to our website. We explained and explained again at each stage of the process.

We went to experts to get a full engineering study including regulatory issues, noise-level tabulations and computer-generated photo simulations. Knowing this was a pioneer project, we made sure the study would be applicable elsewhere, serving as a template for other communities, such as those participating in the new RET program, to streamline the siting process.

Still, we found that nothing overcomes skepticism about a turbine better than people seeing it in action, listening to it, even touching it. When our board sent out a survey after ours had been running for nine months, 95 percent of the 499 responses were favorable. Some of the others weren’t opposed to the current turbine — they just didn’t want more. A “sense of the meeting” straw vote at a townwide meeting on Dec. 4, 2003 reinforced this point.

Second, the Hull experience also showed the public does connect the dots. People see renewable energy projects in our back yard have real, not just symbolic, global impact.

We found Hull residents had taken the trouble to read about global energy, from California’s crisis to America’s desperate dependence on imported oil. They realized our local decisions could help clean the air and improve national security. When Newton Mayor David Cohen joined a Hull tour, he asked rhetorically, “Who here wouldn’t prefer to support home-grown energy rather than import it from a hostile nation 6,000 miles away?” (Cohen isn’t grandstanding: Newton buys green power renewable energy “certificates” for Hull 1 electricity.)

Finally, the Hull experience showed it is easier to win approval for wind projects if the benefits are enjoyed close to home, flowing to the local residents transparently and directly. This way the project is ours, not theirs. We’re the investors and we’re the beneficiaries.

Through the Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance, Mass Electric customers can buy their electricity (for a modest premium) from renewable sources, including our Hull turbine, reducing the need for older dirty generators, and the RET project emphasizes community win programs.

For those of us who live in Hull, it is reassuring to know, especially after the blackout, that part of our energy supply is generated right here, not subject to interruption or to escalating prices from companies and nations far away and entirely outside our control.

Far from being an eyesore, Hull 1 lures tourists to our town. In fact, Sen. Kennedy should know that the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Conventions, created to make large conventions environmentally sound, plans to lead a Hull 1 tour during next year’s Democratic National Convention. Electricity from our turbine might power the convention itself (as a precedent, Rep. William Delahunt, D-Quincy, purchased Hull wind power for the Democratic State Convention).

Based on Hull’s experience, a string of wind turbines may someday dot Boston Harbor the way they do in Copenhagen and become as treasured a part of our viewscape as the Emerald Necklace is today.

Malcolm Brown is a retired philosophy professor and commissioner of the Hull Municipal Light Board, elected on a platform supporting wind power.