After a year of redesigns, the Wild Meadows Wind Farm has submitted its state application to be built in the towns of Alexandria and Danbury. But in the past 18 months, the ground has shifted dramatically beneath the feet of the industry in New Hampshire, these days uncertain winds swirl around the proposal.
On a recent fall day, Ed Cherian with the Spanish renewable energy giant Iberdrola gave a tour of his company’s Groton wind farm to a group of students from the New Hampton School. One of the blades whistles as it spins a sign that a condensation flap is stuck open.
“So it’s 24-wind turbines, almost a year old, bouncing baby wind farm,” he tells the hard-hat and safety glasses equipped students.
Unlike the first two wind farms in the state – which were built in Lempster, and deep in Coos County – this one in Groton is visible to a lot of people. You can see it from Plymouth, from Newfound Lake and from i-93. When it started to come online last fall, a lot of people noticed, and in the time since, a substantial number of people have mobilized against further wind development around the lake.
Before the field trip these kids watched Windfall, a documentary made by anti-wind activists in New York State, but most seem mollified after standing beneath the towers.
“They aren’t as bad as I thought they were going to be, from watching the movie in class,” says Jack Reilly, and Claire Schneider follows with, “I think most people overreact.”
A Battle for Hearts and Minds
These tours are part of the attempt from Iberdrola to win back the hearts and minds of residents as they put in their application to build a third wind farm in the state, about the same size as this one but farther south. They are also reaching out to like-minded folks and ask them to write letters to the editor of their local papers.
Iberdrola first floated the idea a year ago. It’s called Wild Meadows and if approved it would consist of 23 turbines, each 492 feet tall from base to tip. It would sit on a pair of ridges in Alexandria and Danbury, about 4 miles southwest of Newfound Lake.
If the wind blows hard enough they would crank out a steady stream of almost 76 megawatts. That’s about a fifth as much as the state’s biggest coal plant. Iberdrola thinks the turbines will spin a little less than a third of the time, and in a year would produce as much energy as about 30,000 homes use in that same time period.
Only one house would be under a half-mile from the nearest turbine, and most neighbors are somewhere between three-quarters of a mile and a mile away. But there are still plenty of houses that could see and hear the wind farm, especially around Newfound Lake. And these residents have generated a well organized opposition.
“In the facebook world we have over 2,600 facebook friends,” explains Jennifer Tuthill from Alexandria, one of the seven member board of New Hampshire Wind, “there are another 20 very active people in the area and each town has its own active group. Each of those has probably anywhere from ten to twenty people who are definitely right on board.”
Wind Watch, and those it has mobilized have had a marked impact.
On town meeting day resolutions voters all around the lake cast ballots opposing wind development. And Iberdrola shrank the footprint of the project by 14 turbines.
But Iberdrola has still pushed forward, despite these non-binding votes, saying there is more support for the farm than those votes show.
“The silent majority to me is when I go to the local fireman’s dinner and you have an elderly person who come in in a wheelchair and they call you over and says, ‘I don’t vote, and I’m not a political person, but I sure am glad there are people like to you to stand up for people like me,’” says Grafton selectman Sean Frost. He doesn’t buy the silent majority line.
Grafton which was to be the site of eight turbines in the original design, but was cut out of the final plan after the town voted 5-to-1 against the wind farm.
Windwatch has been extremely active this year. They filled charter buses to Concord to testify in favor of a wind farms moratorium. They have been packing the state’s citizen input hearings that are gathering recommendations on how to reform the approval process for energy projects.
But all that activity has alienated some from the towns.
“I actually started out neutral, you know I didn’t care one way or the other, but the wind watch people pushed me over the edge,” says Henry Hall who works at Alexandria’s transfer station. He says his job allows him to talk a lot of residents who favor the wind farm, but are intimidated to speak out because of how vocal the opposition is. “The wind watch people don’t think they’re scary,” he chuckles, “and they are scary believe me. But I don’t scare easy.”
Shades of Things to Come?
This pattern of a town, riven by a contentious development proposed by a big company that promises millions in tax revenue is by no means new. And with aggressive renewable energy goals set in states all around New England, it’s a pattern that New Hampshire hasn’t seen the last of. While this project is by far the farthest along two other wind farms have said they are interested in developing in the area.
The application will be reviewed by a 15-member state committee, composed of the heads and staff from various state bureaucracies, including the Public Utilities Commission and the departments of Resources and Economic Development and Environmental Services.
Once underway, it will take around nine months of review before the committee decides whether the project should be built.