A Tale of two towers

By Philip Conkling | Dec 15, 2011

For the last eight years, a group of students at Camden Hills Regional High School has been raising funds to install a major alternative energy facility on school property. Their purposes have been to teach themselves something about renewable energy, to reduce their school’s reliance on fossil fuels and contribute a bit to the reduction of our communities’ carbon footprint that grows larger and more ominous every day.

For approximately half of the time the students have been doggedly pursuing a wind turbine installation for the school community, an energy committee of local volunteers organized a group to study the feasibility of erecting wind turbines on Ragged Mountain. The goals of this Camden energy group were to develop a local source of energy and distribute any resulting economic benefits to local ratepayers. Similar goals, different scale.

Bit by bit over the years, a succession of Camden Hills students added to their store of knowledge of factors, such as the relationship between wind speed and energy production (energy production varies with the cube of wind speed). They learned about the cost and complexity of new turbine designs, how to present complicated cost-benefit discussions to skeptical audiences of peers, school board directors and community members. They learned how to raise money – real money, more than $500,000 necessary to complete the project. But most of all, they learned diligence and perseverance.

Meanwhile, the Camden Energy Committee, had installed anemometers on Ragged Mountain’s communication tower in order to measure wind speeds over the course of a year. The members discovered that the average sustained wind resource on Ragged Mountain, where the town owns considerable property that might be part of a project, was at the upper end of what is considered commercially viable, which is to say, highly valuable. They also received town funds by a vote of the select board to hire experts to develop an organizational structure for a competitive energy supplier, in order to locally capture the economic benefits. Shortly after the select board met to consider spending $5,000 of town funds for the organizational research, a group of local citizens asked the select board not to study the issue further since their minds were firmly made up that they would oppose any turbines on Ragged Mountain, period.

Here, in order to understand the unfolding story, we need to digress. Across the bay on Vinalhaven, the community-owned electric utility, the Fox Islands Electric Coop, had erected three turbines on a 200-foot hill in the interior of the island to supply enough electricity to meet the total demand on Vinalhaven and North Haven during the course of a year to achieve local energy independence.

In a vote of ratepayers, both seasonal and year-round, 98 percent voted for the plan to erect the three turbines. Shortly after the turbines went into operation at the end of 2009, a group of between five to 10 property owners complained about the noise from the turbines and the newspaper presses went into high gear. A front page story in the Maine Sunday Telegram on the unfolding controversy in January 2010 was followed by a big story in the Boston Globe in August as summer tourism hit its peak and ultimately by an uncomplimentary front page (!) story in the New York Times in October 2010.

The most notable feature of these three newspaper stories was the extensive quotes from a few deeply aggrieved wind farm neighbors with virtually no comments from other community members. The narrative that was repeated over and over again from people who questioned community members about the situation was sadness that the islands that had been so supportive of developing their own source of electricity now had a bad case of buyer’s remorse. But nothing could be further from the truth. A survey conducted by the island electric coop after the first six months of operation revealed that 95 percent of the respondents were “as supportive” or “more supportive” of the decision to install the turbines as compared to their original disposition. In other words, community support of the wind farm had dropped from 98 to 95 percent. But this was apparently not news worth reporting.

The recognition that the media is attracted to negative stories hardly a revelation. Nevertheless, the media has enormous influence in shaping opinions whether we like it or not. The result of the intense media spotlight on the supposedly “failed” Vinalhaven wind project, played out quickly and sadly in Camden. When the select board asked for volunteers from the community to participate in a committee to further study a potential Ragged Mountain wind farm project, the only volunteers for the committee were its opponents. End of story.

Meanwhile the Camden Hills students successfully, and unbelievably, completed their unprecedented $510,000 fund raising campaign and were set to enter into a contract to erect the project. But wait! A school board member interviewed one of the five to 10 opponents of the Vinalhaven project and called for a last minute expensive sound study.

At a recent school board meeting, the Camden Hill students who had successfully shepherded the project through eight long years effectively pointed out that the generating capacity each one of the Vinalhaven turbines is fifteen times that of the one proposed for Camden Hills and that unlike the Vinalhaven turbines, the Camden Hills turbine does not depend on a gearbox, one of the sources of noise complaints. The students patiently instructed the school board in basic physics.

The result is that the Camden Hills project will proceed, the Ragged Mountain project is DOA, Vinahaven is still widely believed to have been unsuccessful and the media focuses narrowly on scandal and conflict. All the while, we continue to generate power from fossil fuels while the world’s climate changes unpredictably day after day and year after year. Nothing much has changed, except students at one high school in Maine deserve an A in civics.

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