2009-12-10 / Letters to the Editor

Second thoughts about wind turbines

Jamestown residents have devoted years of effort and untold wealth to maintaining their island’s natural beauty and small village atmosphere. Careful zoning regulations and the conservation of open spaces have preserved one of the most beautiful places on the eastern seaboard. Yet, more remains to be done: The infrastructure of the park at Ft. Getty has deteriorated with the passage of time; the town’s wood pile pier needs repairs; the replacement of aging water mains is incomplete; and some of our sidewalks and streets need to be repaved. A group of residents wants the town to build a bicycle path; others would like to see a sailing school and other facilities created at Ft. Getty. Presumably, most, if not all, of these projects will require financing with municipal bonds. One important question is how to rank-order the projects in terms of their importance to the town, since it is unlikely that all could be undertaken at one time.

The recent recommendation of the town’s Wind Energy Committee to build and operate a large wind turbine on the coast at Ft. Getty needs to be analyzed in this context. The project is designed to meet municipal electricity needs with green energy and, depending on what assumptions are made regarding project subsidies and debt financing, to generate a cash flow to the town of an estimated $2.2 million over the project’s 20-year lifetime. Debt service for an interestfree, 15-year bond issue would be paid by a reduction in the municipality’s electricity bill made possible by the turbine and by the sale of excess energy to the grid.

For the first 15 years of operation, while debt service expense was being incurred, cash flow to the town would be about $65,000 a year, which equates to about $12.50 per Jamestown resident per year – not a big deal. The bulk of the cash flow would be received during the project’s final five years – its present value is considerably less than projected cash flow for those years, depending on the interest rate used in the present value calculation.

As far as green electricity is concerned, it is available now. I purchase it for residential use from National Grid through the Green- Up program. From this, one can correctly infer that I am very much in favor of using wind energy to produce electricity. But, I don’t think that the best way to generate it is by “pincushioning” New England’s coastal towns with a handful of wind turbines.

In order to maximize the efficiency of wind turbines, they should be constructed in wind farms, where sufficient numbers of machines are grouped in a single location to permit economies of scale to be achieved. Moreover, they should be situated in coastal waters, where stronger, more consistent winds are to be found than over land masses.

Seen from a distance of some miles, wind farms are attractive in the way that kinetic sculptures can be. Viewed from up close, however, a turbine appears grossly disproportionate in size to its surroundings. Take a look at Portsmouth’s turbine from the vantage point of the Agway store on Rte. 138 and ask yourself what an industrial installation of that magnitude would do to Jamestown’s coastal village ambiance if it were to be built here. The Wind Energy Committee has down-played concerns that a turbine installation in Jamestown would depress real estate values by pointing to a study conducted in Hull, Mass., which reported that the value of real estate from which that town’s turbine could be seen appreciated more than the value of similar properties from which the turbine could not be seen. To interpret the results of that study to mean that turbines do not adversely effect the values of neighboring properties, one must be willing to conflate correlation with causality, which researchers are cautioned against doing, since many other unmeasured factors may have affected property values as well. In any event, it is unwise to vest too much authority in the results of a single study.

To revisit the beginning of this letter, one must ask where, if it were to be built in Jamestown, would a wind turbine fit in the list of infrastructure improvement projects mentioned above if they were rank-ordered in terms of their importance to the town? For example, should the town erect a turbine before it replaces aging water mains? The decision to undertake any one of the projects will influence subsequent decisions to implement each of the others, since debt financing for any one of them will reduce the town’s borrowing capacity for the implementation of subsequent projects.

Finally, we all must acknowledge that substitutes for our present carbon-based technologies, such as wind, solar, thermal and nuclear power generation, inevitably will be part of our future. Yet, the single greatest remedy for the environmental, political and economic problems created by carbon based technologies lies in the conservation of energy, not in any one of the new technologies for its generation. It is a sobering fact that Europeans today use, on average, half the energy per capita used by Americans.
Robert A. Ullrich

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