Bad Vibes in Kingston, Mass.

Clean, green wind power might be our best weapon against climate change. So why do some people say it’s their worst nightmare?
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Virginia Irvine, left, president of Wind Wise Massachusetts. Her group opposes projects like the 400-foot turbine on Kingston’s capped landfill, right, which was championed by local green-energy activist Mark Beaton. (Photographs by Toan Trinh)

Wind Wise, as you might imagine, is not without its critics. Professor James Manwell, a mechanical engineer and director of the Wind Energy Center at UMass Amherst, says Massachusetts is windy enough to eventually generate all of the energy it needs from turbines, but he worries that the growing backlash from groups like Wind Wise could set that goal back indefinitely. “I consider the opponents a real hindrance,” Manwell says. People who live near turbines have some legitimate concerns, he adds, but “it’s hard to separate fact from hysteria.”

Environmentalists and state officials who believe that wind is a crucial weapon against climate change have been squaring off against Wind Wise and its allies in towns like Kingston all across the state, and the battles have created strange bedfellows. People who might otherwise support clean energy suddenly find themselves joining forces with climate-change skeptics in a fight to keep giant turbines out of their communities. Looming above the struggle are important questions about how the state regulates wind, and about the role of the fossil-fuel industry in an ostensibly grassroots movement.

On the ground, however, the concerns are more immediate. “We don’t hate wind turbines,” Sean Reilly says. “We just want our quality of life back.”

 

In Kingston, the fight to have the windmills taken offline has ignited a battle that’s turned neighbor against neighbor. Those who support the turbines say Wind Wise volunteers are interlopers spreading misinformation. Arguments over turbine noise and the alleged health impacts have erupted on Facebook and spilled over into town meetings. Meanwhile, a group of 10 homeowners has sued the town’s zoning board of appeals and No Fossil Fuel, the owner of three of the windmills in town, alleging that the building permits for the project were illegal. While officials express sympathy for families like the Reillys, some say all the discord threatens to drown out legitimate concerns about noise and shadow flicker. “There are divisions in town that weren’t there before,” says Elaine Fiore, the chair of Kingston’s board of selectmen.

Though the turbines face fierce opposition in some corners of Kingston, overall they remain quite popular. A survey by Tufts University in 2012 found that 78 percent of residents approved of them, and just 26 percent said the sound was disturbing. Beyond the allure of generating clean energy, people in town also like the financial benefits provided by the windmills. The turbine on the landfill produces $124,630 in annual lease and tax payments for the town, a figure that will rise during the 20-year lease, plus some $70,000 a year in energy savings. The privately owned turbines, meanwhile, bring Kingston as much as $200,000 a year in property taxes and about $1,000 a month in energy savings. And in part because it eased the permitting process for alternative-energy projects, Kingston is now designated as a Massachusetts Green Community, resulting in more than $450,000 in state grants so far. Kingston town planner Tom Bott says the town has used the grants to upgrade its fire station, elementary school, and library.

Supporters of the town’s turbines cast Wind Wise as a pack of reactionaries thwarting the promise of green energy. “We all realize that global warming is not a joke,” says Mark Beaton, who spent the better part of a decade trying to bring wind to Kingston, and who is chair of the town’s Green Energy Committee. Beaton and I are having lunch at the bar and grill he owns in town, the Charlie Horse. He’s installed solar panels on the restaurant’s roof, and he runs his truck on biodiesel made from the kitchen’s leftover grease. His face turns red when he talks about Wind Wise, which he says is holding back progress on climate change—and playing into the hands of the fossil-fuel industry. “Kingston is just a little microcosm of what’s going on,” he says. “It’s not really grassroots that creates this kind of misinformation, and it’s certainly not in the interest of the fossil-fuel people to have clean energy.”

Indeed, some conservative activists with ties to the fossil-fuel industry have recognized the benefits of allying themselves with groups like Wind Wise. In 2010, a self-described “backwoods scientist” and prominent climate-change skeptic from North Carolina named John Droz Jr. spoke at a lecture series in West Barnstable organized by Wind Wise’s Cape Cod affiliate. He also gave a talk in Falmouth in 2012 at the invitation of Wind Wise volunteers there. Droz, as it happened, was then a senior fellow at the American Tradition Institute (now called the Energy & Environment Legal Institute), a think tank funded in part by the oil billionaires Charles and David Koch, where he argued tirelessly that turbines are inefficient and a waste of money. In February 2012, Droz hosted a group of “wind warriors” at a two-day meeting in Washington to plan a national public relations campaign against wind energy. In attendance were officials from right-wing groups with such upbeat names as “the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow” and “the Competitive Enterprise Institute,” along with representatives from 20 to 30 state and local groups, including Wind Wise Massachusetts and the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a group organized to oppose the Cape Wind project. The goal of the meeting, according to a memo later leaked to the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, was to “create a grass-roots ground swell from which the clamor for change will reach the elected officials and policy-makers.” The memo stressed the importance of “inputs from local groups and others who have an interest in spreading the message.”

Wind Wise leaders are adamant that the group has no ties to fossil fuel, but it has been successful at getting the anti-wind message out. Mark Beaton recalls a panel discussion the group held at the Kingston Intermediate School shortly after the town’s turbines were turned on in the spring of 2012. The panelists, most of them representatives of Wind Wise, raised a number of concerns about windmills, among them that they lower nearby property values (in truth, the few surveys that exist have shown little actual effect); that they loom over landscapes, dwarfing human-scale buildings; and that they produce sounds and shadows that drive some neighbors, like the Reillys, to distraction. But what really moved the crowd in attendance, Beaton tells me, were the frightening stories about wind turbine syndrome. “They scared the living bejesus out of the residents of Kingston,” he says.