A state government plan to open waters close to the south shore of Martha’s Vineyard to industrial-scale wind power generation now appears unlikely to proceed, following the release of a draft wind energy plan by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

Most of the two areas identified by the commonwealth for potential turbines, one near Noman’s Land and the other near the Elizabeth Islands, would be excluded from development for scenic reasons and all but a sliver of the rest are deemed to be of “very significant impact” in the commission plan, which was released on Monday.

Between them, the two areas would allow for the construction of about 160 turbines, three miles offshore at their closest point.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs also appears to be losing interest in developing the areas as its focus turns to federal waters farther away, commission executive director Mark London said, speaking to the Gazette about the commission plan this week.

 

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MVC draft wind energy plan: near shore is mostly a no-build zone. Courtesy Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

A variety of factors, including lack of developer interest inshore and increasing developer interest in more distant federal waters, and new data about the sensitivity of the designated areas, has changed the energy equation since the state released its Ocean Management Plan in mid-2008, he said.

“There has been a lot of new information found since the state did its plan,” Mr. London said.

“The state, after discussions with the Department of Defense, took off the table areas designated as containing unexploded ordnance. So that took away a good part of the Noman’s area.

“They also took off areas under 20 meters deep which are primary foraging areas for sea ducks, based on research that has been done in recent years.”

Does this mean that the state plan, which drew much heat on the Vineyard two years ago, is effectively dead?

“When we’ve asked whether those two areas in the [state] management plan are on or off the table, they never really give a clear reply,” Mr. London said. “But they say no one’s really looking at them now. The state officials now are essentially agreeing with federal officials that the interest is 12 miles or more offshore.”

The state plan was very much driven by the former secretary of the department, Ian Bowles.

Said Mr.London: “Since the area was designated there has been a change of secretary, changes of staff, and we haven’t really heard what the new staff and secretary’s positions are.”

Meanwhile, he said the MVC draft plan, presents basically two options.

“One takes the analysis in here and says that those relatively limited areas in state waters . . . could be open to development in the short term, subject to all the constraints in the plan.

“Option two is that for the life of this plan, about five or seven years, we put off any consideration within state waters while we see what happens further off shore,” Mr. London said.

Currently, federal and state authorities are planning to open up some 1,300 square miles of federal waters for development. A call for expressions of interest earlier this year attracted about a dozen proposals.

“If they do go ahead that might influence what Vineyarders think about future development closer to shore,” said Mr. London. “People might say we’ve already done our fair share, that’s enough. Or they might say that their concerns have been addressed.”

Calls this week to the state energy and environmental affairs office department seeking clarification of the current status of the Ocean Management Plan area received no response.

The commission plan also proposes tight regulation of wind turbines on shore.

The vast majority of the Island is classified as either excluded areas or areas of special concern under the plan, meaning they would be referred to the commission and/or towns for consideration before they could proceed.

Even in the areas not so designated, any construction over 150 feet — a relatively modest size for a turbine — would be reviewed by the commission and subject to a special permit from the relevant town.

Mr. London emphasized that most of the Island still was potentially open for turbine construction.

“The fact that they are subject to additional review doesn’t mean they would not be built,” he said.

The report describes the commission’s approach as “balanced but cautious,” and notes problems that have come to light in relation to turbines over recent years ranging from noise, to flicker of light from the spinning blades, to so-called ice throw.

“Several utility-scale turbines were erected in Falmouth between 2008 and 2010 which had noise, flicker, and other impacts that were considerably greater than anticipated,” the plan says.

“Partly as a result, in 2010, the voters in four towns on Cape Cod that been working for many years on their own municipal turbine projects turned these projects down.

“The towns of Edgartown and Tisbury, which had been contemplating the erection of utility scale turbines at their wastewater treatment facility and park-and-ride respectively, have both opted to pursue development of large arrays of solar panels, largely out of concern about the potential impacts of large-scale wind turbines.”

The plan cites considerable research on numerous other effects including on wildlife, fisheries, navigation.

But it also quantifies the cost of a failure to move to alternative energy sources, both in climatic and economic terms. Apart from the threat posed by sea level rise and other effects of global warming, the current energy regime is expensive.

As of 2005, the Vineyard used energy equivalent to about 750,000 barrels of oil, worth some $64 million, and 99 per cent of that money leaves the Island.

Meanwhile, the average wind power around the Cape and Islands is greater than anywhere else on the East Coast, and greater than all but a few small areas in the entire east of the country, the plan says.

The draft is being released to solicit public comment over the summer. The idea is to convene a small group in the fall to submit a final draft to the full commission for adoption.

A copy of the Wind Energy Plan can be downloaded from the Island Plan Web site, islandplan.org, or by calling the commission at 508-693-3453. The first of at least a couple of public meetings will be held in August, Mr. London said.

by Mike Seccombe