The decision to build land-based wind turbines on Wampanoag Tribe land in Aquinnah will likely come down to three factors: aesthetics, acoustics and economics.
The results of a wind feasibility study unveiled at the tribal administration building in Aquinnah last Friday showed that while turbines could deliver big environmental and economic benefits in an area with wind resources it characterized as “superb,” it could come at a cost to the scenic and acoustic values in town.
Backed by grant money from the Massachusetts Green Energy Center and the Bureau of Indian Affairs as well as the tribe’s own resources, the study — carried out by the Wampanoag planning department as well as a handful of consultants and engineers — focused on two sites for possible wind development: one near the tribal community center and the other at the old Coast Guard communication tower where the tribe has had a meteorological tower operating since 2007.
In Aquinnah, a town defined by its tranquility and isolation, the issue of noise from wind turbines was of particular interest. In the largest models studied, 1.5- megawatt turbines, noise did not appear to be excessive for neighbors abutting tribal lands, although there was some conflicting information presented.
The state Department of Environmental Protection uses 10 decibels as a threshold for background noise, but Martha’s Vineyard Commission executive director Mark London, who attended the meeting, said the commission recently consulted with an acoustic engineer who suggested the standard should be five decibels for intermittent noise, which would apply to the whoosh-whooshing of turbines.
And while defenders have described wind turbines as elegant machines, many who attended the meeting on Friday reacted to visual simulations at the two sites with grumbles of “terrible,” and “oh my gosh.”
Mr. London suggested that a more accurate grasp of the visual scale could come from across Vineyard Sound, where a 1.65-megawatt turbine is in place at theFalmouth wastewater treatment plant. Located 11 miles away from the Vineyard Haven drawbridge, the turbine features prominently on the horizon.
Another stumbling block is the capacity of the town’s infrastructure and electrical grid to accommodate a massive wind turbine. The turbines would have to be ferried to Vineyard Haven by barge and hauled down State Road on a truck with a 123-foot bed.
Massive clear cutting at either Black Brook Road or Old South Road would be required in order for a truck that size just to make the turn.
Despite all the logistical problems, the turbines could potentially serve as profit centers for the tribe a few years after initial investment. Although each 1.5- megawatt turbine would cost upwards of $5 million to install and take nine years to return a profit, within 20 years the machine is projected to bring in $12 million in profit. With alternate third-party ownership structures the time required to turn a profit could be as low as three years with two 1.5-megawatt machines. By contrast, the smallest turbine studied, a 225-kilowatt machine, would cost just over $1 million to install but would take nearly 18 years before revenue outpaced installation costs. The lifespan of a turbine is estimated at 20 years.
Of course benefits would not only be monetary. One 1.5-megawatt turbine would be the equivalent of taking 345 cars off the road. Even a 600-kilowatt machine would be the equivalent of taking 97 cars off the road.
Tribal planner Durwood Vanderhoop noted that there are no serious plans in the works to begin turbine construction on tribal lands.
“This is only a feasibility study,” he said. “The tribe doesn’t have any plans besides making sure that we are reviewing our options and communicating with the community.”
by Peter Brannen