Emily Bramhall had already replaced the incandescent light bulbs at home and in her store with low-watt fluoresecents, helped her daughter buy a hybrid car and taken other steps to reduce her carbon footprint. Now she wanted to go further, and start making her own electricity.
But, as Kermit the Frog once sang, it’s not that easy being green, and Ms. Bramhall’s plan to install a wind turbine on her Chilmark property met some resistance before the town zoning board of appeals this week.
The problem was the same one which confronts so many wind generation projects, whether they are projects like Cape Wind or small ones like hers: people endorse nonpolluting wind power, so long as they do not have to look at the turbines.
Her neighbors had plans to build a house on their 10-acre property abutting her land. And they were there on Tuesday night in the Chilmark town hall, with their attorney, to argue against the proposal. A town bylaw allows the installation of a windmill as long as it does not interfere with the rights of abutters to enjoy their property.
The fact that they would be able to see the turbine, the neighbors’ argument went, interfered with those rights. Ironically, had Ms. Bramhall’s proposal been for a far larger structure, like a house, or a barn, she would not have been subject to the same bylaw constraints.
The neighbors’ argument against the turbine was the classic not in my back yard position: they fully supported the idea of wind generation, but not there. This was despite the fact that the structure would be more than 300 feet from their proposed home site, up a hill and partially screened by trees.
They complained the stays which would brace the tower would encroach within 40 to 60 feet of her boundary. The cables are 5/16 of an inch thick.
The discussion went back and forth, canvassing possible alternatives which might have stable enough soil and enough wind. In the end, the board accepted there really were none. The chosen site was at the highest point of Ms. Bramhall’s land, open to prevailing southwest winds in summer and northeast winds in winter, but tucked as discreetly as possible among several large oaks.
She won approval, subject to a 20-day appeal. Assuming all goes well for Ms. Bramhall, work should begin shortly on putting up the five-kilowatt turbine, which will stand 104 feet tall to the top of the arc of its blades, on a single, stayed pole.
She told the meeting: “This turbine that I’m proposing . . . is estimated to reduce CO2 [carbon dioxide, the chief contributor to global warming] emissions by 11,000 pounds per year.
“It’s not a frivolous action. It’s something that I’m very sincere about.”
A little while later, before the same meeting, a second proposal came up for consideration, from Robert Green, on Old Farm Road, for a turbine identical to Ms. Bramhall’s.
His hearing had been continued from last month in order to consider other sites for his proposed turbine after he also encountered resistance from neighbors. In his case an alternative location was identified, 235 feet from the nearest property line. The previously-concerned neighbors were agreeable and the turbine was approved with no objection.
Just about a week earlier, in West Tisbury, yet another similar turbine got the green light from that town’s zoning board of appeals. But it also encountered resistance on the way through. Building inspector Ernie Mendenhall initially knocked it back.
Three projects may not sound like a big number, but together they amount to a doubling of the wind generation capacity on Martha’s Vineyard. At least as far as anyone can be sure.
“I’m pretty sure there are only three functional modern turbines working right now,” said Gary Harcourt, of Great Rock Windpower, who is building the turbines for all three projects.
“One is at my shop and home in Oak Bluffs, which I put in exactly a year ago. One is at the high school and one is at South Mountain company,” he said, adding:
“There may also be some old ones kicking around, that may or may not be working now.”
Even if some of those old 1980s vintage generators are still functional, it is not a lot, given the Vineyard is, as more than one person has said, the Saudi Arabia of wind.
But it appears that is about to change.
John Abrams, co-founder and president of South Mountain, said interest in small turbines has skyrocketed on the Vineyard.
“It’s spectacular. I see a tremendous amount of things happening — small residential projects, municipal projects. They are mainly being talked about, in the early stages of feasibility. But there’s tremendous interest,” Mr. Abrams said, adding:
“We have at least four or five in the works, undergoing design and planning approvals — two in West Tisbury, one Edgartown, one Aquinnah, one in Chilmark, a bit further off.”
Mr. Harcourt said he had two or three others in the planning stages.
But at the risk of repeating, it’s not so easy being green. One difficulty is that the various Island towns have different bylaws relating to wind generators.
Said Mr. Harcourt: “Among the towns, West Tisbury wins because it allows turbines as of right, with no limits other than setbacks [from property lines].
“Oak Bluffs has a by-right turbines as well, but they limit their height to 70 feet, which is not really good for anyone unless they have no trees at all. Edgartown and Chilmark both have to go to review by the zoning board of appeals. Aquinnah basically has nothing. Vineyard Haven, I think, limits towers but not necessarily turbines.”
Mr. Harcourt said he would like to see a unified code, and presented a set of regulations to the Chilmark planning board a few weeks back.
Another problem is space. Mr. Harcourt estimated that a landowner needs about an acre and a half of land at a minimum to allow enough distance from property lines.
“But I think as people get more used to them I can see them being out up on smaller lots. It really depends on the neighbors. I’ve got neighbors within a hundred feet of my turbine and they’ve been happy with it,” he said.
There is also the cost, not only of installing a generator (about $30,000 even after government subsidies), but in dealing with utility companies.
The way the system works, Mr. Harcourt explained, is if you use more than you make, your electric meter spins forward and you’ll be charged. If you make more than you use, the meter spins backwards. But you are charged almost four times as much for excess power you consume than you are paid for excess power you generate.
“So,” Mr. Harcourt said, “it’s expensive. You need a certain amount of land and you need to be in a good spot for wind. Not everybody is going to meet those criteria.”
He agreed it would be far preferable if Island towns themselves did their own wind generating. “I’d love to see that,” Mr. Harcourt said. Currently Tisbury has a tower up to assess its wind generating capacity. West Tisbury is looking into it. Edgartown is looking into it. Aquinnah is looking into it.
But any real action still seems a way off. Meanwhile, the technology continues to improve. Turbines are no longer the noisy and unreliable things they once were.
“We installed our first wind turbine, about 1980 I think at the Allen farm in Chilmark,” said Mr. Abrams. “The difference in the technology now is night and day.”
“Wind is the fastest growing energy source in the world and there’s a tremendous amount of research and development and product development happening, all over the world,” he added.
Mr. Harcourt said the turbines for the current proposals avoid a couple of the major problems of the older types.
The newer turbines are induction generators which make alternating current power that’s consistent with the grid power. “So you don’t need the inverter to make it into AC, which is a complicated piece of equipment which historically has been the trouble spot of the industry,” he said.
Mr. Abrams said the problem with wind turbines has always been more aesthetic than anything else.
“It’s a new presence that people aren’t used to. Some people like to look at them, some don’t. It’s that simple,” he said.
But if the current trend is any indication, wind turbines will soon become a new feature of the Island landscape.