MV Gazette, on October 23rd, 2009

Secretary Bowles Calls Conflict Understandable

Ian Bowles, secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, certainly would not categorize those who oppose a major wind power development off the shores of the Vineyard as Nimbys.

He prefers more delicate, more bureaucratic, terms than that.

“People have different interests and prerogatives,” he said.

Meaning: a lot of folks tend to be resistant to the idea of having a large-scale electric power plant constructed in their (metaphorical) backyards, and there was bound to be controversy over the state’s oceans plan, which makes provision for as many as 166 turbines to be sited within a few miles of the southwest corner of the Island.

Mr. Bowles is only too willing to acknowledge that “the process of sorting out what the landscape of what a clean energy economy is going to look like is always going to be messy.”

But, he said, “We have to think about where we as Cape Codders or Vineyard residents want to get our power from.”

Right now, the Cape and Islands get their power from one of the dirtier sources — an oil burning plant.

“The people who live adjacent to the Canal plant in northern Sandwich don’t have great property values, because they live next to an oil burning facility that powers all of Cape Cod,” he noted.

And Massachusetts as a whole is one of the nation’s lagging states when it comes to renewable energy. Texas, the leading state, has installed the capacity to generate 8,797 megawatts of wind energy, according to figures this week from the American Wind Energy Association. This state has nine, according to figures from Mr. Bowles’s office.

So his job, as the state’s chief energy and environment bureaucrat, was to explore potential alternatives as part of state efforts to formulate a cohesive plan for the management of its coastal waters.

The state legislature gave him and his office a pretty compressed time frame in which to do it. The final plan is to be done by year’s end.

And that put him and the EOEEA in a tough spot. Not that he appeared at all troubled by it. Sitting in his Boston office on Monday this week, he calmly issued assurances that the Vineyard was not being unfairly singled out for wind power, that the process was driven entirely by science, not politics, that he and his office wanted to work cooperatively with local planning bodies, and that no decision on turbine siting was set in stone.

“The question for the state plan is whether there is or is not a place that is appropriate for commercial wind development,” he said

“To my mind that is an open question, and the oceans plan reflects an effort to figure out what would be the best sites, if we were going to do any sites at all.”

First, the problem. The state, the nation, indeed the world is struggling to come up with a solution to the climate change resulting from human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, which produces so-called greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide.

“The challenge that we face,” said Mr. Bowles, “is that the law of the land is that we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

“Our annual requirement on electric utilities for buying renewable power has just gone from half a per cent growth each year to a full per cent each year under the Green Communities Act.”

But he said Massachusetts still is playing catch-up when it comes to tapping alternative power sources, which in this climate largely means wind power.

“Statewide we are about 40 per cent natural gas, ballpark 10 to 15 per cent nuclear, 10 to 15 coal, 10 per cent hydro, 10 per cent diesel and oil, and single digits solar and wind,” he said.

“We buy power from all of New England, New York and the adjacent areas of Canada.

“Massachusetts is early in the process that Europe and large areas of the rest of the United States have already gone through, about building consensus and a level of comfort about having wind power at all,” he said.

On the positive side, he said, the state is well below the national average in the amount of greenhouse gases produced per unit of economic output.

And he said a deal struck in the last month with electric and gas utilities will result in $1.6 billion of investment in end use energy efficiency over the next three years, “making us the number one state in the country for per capita savings and investment in energy efficiency.

“So Massachusetts is superlative in some regards. But we haven’t done as well as other states in terms of siting and developing renewable generation.”

Hence the urgency of action.

The problem is that unlike states such as Texas, there is not a lot of wide open space to put turbines.

“We’re the third most densely populated state [behind New Jersey and Rhode Island], and any heavily populated state is going to have more siting conflicts about siting things like wind power,” Mr. Bowles said.

There’s no arguing with that statement, given the expressions of concern and hostility now ringing around the Island about the oceans plan.

Yet Mr. Bowles, a self-described “good bureaucrat,” sees it all as “feedback” and “very positive.”

He noted comments from the MVC that “we had achieved high quality professional work in collecting and analyzing a huge amount of data in such a short time.”

And he sees it all through a positive lens.

“The commission thinks we did an excellent job,” he said, referring to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which recently submitted 12 pages of critical comments on the oceans plan.

“They’re now providing us with additional data. Of course we’re going to make use of it,” he said. He continued:

“I don’t think anyone on the state side wants to see development of resources like this against a backdrop of conflict.

“The plan, in multiple forms, establishes exclusionary zones. You may recall that there was a proposal for a major wind development in Buzzard’s Bay. Based on the data that was available to the planners — the northern tier of Buzzards Bay was a globally important center for the roseate tern, and then looking at the navigational data — it was clear that wasn’t the right site.

“So the plan has already denied a major energy development based on data.

“I think if it is the case that the information we get in from the scientific process leads us to change the inputs into the zoning decisions, that will be the result.”

As for whether the commission should have full power of review over wind turbine developments, he said the oceans plan was about compiling data and developing broad management approaches, not about details of process.

“What it doesn’t say is ‘here is how you will proceed with actually doing any type of project.’ It doesn’t get down to the level of the question you’re raising,” he said.

“I think the question of how the state should or should not proceed with its local partners is an excellent one and I think the feedback from the Vineyard commission is timely and thoughtful and useful.

“There is obviously a request for additional prescription about what should be a local process in the event after the oceans plan that some sort of development [is proposed]. I personally would like to see us be accommodating,” he said.

But he added: “Bear in mind that any regulations the MVC issues relative to developments of regional impact (DRI) also require the secretary’s approval. That’s in the act that set up the MVC.”

In other words, the prospects of some greater formal involvement by local agencies is there, but those who would have the MVC as the ultimate arbiter are whistling in the wind.

Then there is the third order question of recompense to the Island if any development does go ahead.

“We took a very open-ended stance on that in the draft plan,” the secretary said.

But he noted the federal government has a process where 27 per cent of the royalties paid by any developer go to the state. In the case of Cape Wind the state made a decision to earmark that money for mitigation.

“I think our view from the state level is that it absolutely makes sense to have a significant proportion go to local communities. If local communities want to have the majority of whatever benefits that might flow in terms of royalties that are left over after mitigation and other costs, I think that’s a reasonable request.”

However, he said detailing process and compensation now was “putting the cart a bit before the horse.

“We shouldn’t allow bureaucratic arguments become an excuse for not doing anything at all. I’ve heard from a lot of Vineyard residents who say: ‘About time. Let’s get on with it.’ ”

with permission, MV Gazette

by Mike Seccombe

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