A large group of Island planning and conservation officials gathered last week to debate what is expected to be a central dilemma in the months and years to come: how to allow and regulate large-scale wind turbines on the Vineyard while still protecting the Island’s unique culture, environment and economy.

Widely considered one of the most beautiful and fragile places in the state with delicate ecosystems, fishing grounds and habitats for rare and endangered species, the Vineyard also has some of the best wind conditions in New England.

So much so that the waters off Noman’s Land and Cuttyhunk have been identified in the state Ocean Management Plan as the only two areas in the commonwealth suitable for large-scale commercial wind farms.

At a meeting last Thursday sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to discuss an early draft version of the Wind Energy Siting Plan for Dukes County, spokesmen from all six Island towns offered a wide array of ideas and thoughts.

And while most in attendance said they support wind energy, they also warned planners to tread carefully when drafting wind regulations that will play a large role in what the Island looks like 20 or 30 years from now.

“When I read the Martha’s Vineyard Commission enabling act, it is clear that you are supposed to be protecting the Island from large-scale industrial development of any kind . . . that seems to be your driving force,” Aquinnah resident Ken Wentworth said. “This seems to me your biggest challenge ever [to that goal].”

The ocean plan is a comprehensive planning document laying out the future use of all Massachusetts waters up to three miles offshore. But it sets aside just two wind energy areas in the state for development; one on the far side of Noman’s, which falls within the town of Chilmark, and the other off the southern end of the Elizabeth islands.

Together, the two areas could accommodate as many as 166 turbines, each more than 400 feet tall, off Vineyard waters, that are capable of generating enough electricity to power some 200,000 homes.

The Gosnold selectmen have expressed qualified support for the idea of a major ocean wind farm within their town boundaries.

In sharp contrast, Vineyard towns have been resistant to large-scale wind farms in waters near the Island. The commission voted in November to designate the waters within three miles of the Island’s coast as a district of critical planning concern, triggering a year-long moratorium on ocean wind farms while rules are developed.

The ocean plan gives the commission final approval over wind farm developments which will be regulated through the Dukes County Wind Energy Siting Plan, and this was the subject of last week’s meeting.

Although the plan will establish regulations for both wind turbines on land and sea, most of the discussion last Thursday focused on offshore wind farms.

West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel warned the commission to not make it a rush job.     “From my point of view we are beset by an overarching atmosphere of urgency and haste. And I think there are a lot of problems here . . . we should proceed very carefully,” he said.

Chris Wright of Oak Bluffs said that, because wind turbine technology constantly is changing and evolving, dilemmas arise.

“There is progress going on right now, as we speak, to create flowing underwater wind turbines . . . be sure to take into consideration how much more you want to build around Noman’s when 35 years from now [those turbines] will virtually be obsolete,” he said.

Joan Ames of West Tisbury questioned the current direction.

“I hear very little about taking any of our current power plans offline because these industrial strength windmills are being erected [in Vineyard waters]. Is this just going to feed our insatiable appetite for energy?” she said, later adding: “The whole idea that these could all get put up around us, and then be obsolete in five years, I think that is a real problem.”

Other green energy enthusiasts urged members of the commission to take the long view.

“I would love to get past talking about these technical issues, all this talk about new technology. We know this area is being looked at for siting wind turbines, with technology that exists today,” said Gary Harcourt of Great Rock Wind. “We need to get past that and start looking at what the benefits are for Vineyarders, and ask how we can obtain benefits from this project, aside from the obvious benefit of clean power.”

Commissioner member Douglas Sederholm agreed.

“What we are trying to do is develop a framework of regulations that allows us to control the development wind energy in a way that is compatible with our culture, our lifestyle, and our economy — and the values we hold most dear . . . we cannot just say no [to these developments], just as we can’t just say bring them all on,” he said, adding:

“There is no way in the world we are ever going to able to guarantee that a coal-fired power plant goes offline because we allowed 150 wind turbines on the other side of Noman’s Land. The world doesn’t work that way. I wish it did, but it doesn’t.”
Most of the discussion focused on the broader concept of wind turbine development. The current draft version of the siting plan notes that much of the work still lies ahead.

At the close of the meeting, David McGlinchey, executive director of the Vineyard Energy Project, offered a final thought.

“The debate between renewable energy and conservation is not an either-or concept . . . this is driven by real problems we have in this world,” he said. “I think its dangerous to say, well, if we just conserve enough energy on one end, we won’t need to generate clean energy on the other end. We need to do both. And we need them now.”