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.

  • Kerry Kearney

    I’ve been following wind energy in Massachusetts for a few years, and this article is balanced and accurate. Good piece of journalism. The obvious conclusion is that several turbines have been sited too close to homes. Residents don’t enjoy attending Health Board meetings just to complain, and it’s ridiculous to accuse middle class families of doing the bidding of Big Oil. There’s a problem, and there’s a solution; don’t site them so close to homes. Has the State bothered to map out residential complaints around each turbine in Massachusetts?

    • Alec Sevins

      Balanced, eh? You really think there are magic places to put countless additional 400-700 foot towers on a finite planet with limited zones of consistently adequate wind speeds? The whole “careful siting” ruse fails out of the gate. If they could be carefully sited it would have happened already. A cursory look at a map of rural homes shows that it’s impossible to scatter wind turbines effectively while respecting residents. And wildlife has no say in the matter, especially birds and bats that keep dying. Wind turbines blight the landscape and soundscape no matter where they’re installed. The only fair place to put them would be right in the cities that draw most of their power, but of course that’s impractical.

  • NortheasternEE

    Wind industry propaganda has convinced environmentalists, political leaders and the public that renewable energy is necessary to combat Global Warming. This is not true. –

    Wind and solar energy are not replacements for fossil fuel. They are add-ons with a capacity value close to zero. The addition of wind energy into our system of power generation only serves to decrease the efficiency of our fossil fuel power plants while increasing operating costs destroying the integrity of levelized cost comparisons. Little or no fuel is saved. –

    http://breakingenergy.com/2012/03/13/renewable-energy-will-cost-grid-more-mit/

    Forcing wind on the power grid is forcing coal to be replaced by natural gas, because wind needs the firming support of natural gas on the grid. While that may result in a less polluting system, the cost will skyrocket and the coal will be exported to China, India, and elsewhere, where it will be burned without scrubbers increasing pollution worldwide. We will become solely dependent on natural gas for heat and electricity (So much for diversifying the fuel supply). Currently there is no way to avoid natural gas.

    The Chinese will use our cheap coal to make wind turbines and solar panels, using “slave” labor. These will be exported to us so we can satisfy the artificial market created by the many mandates like the Massachusetts Green Communities Act for renewable energy. –

    China wins. We lose, and Global Warming continues!

  • Marie_Jane123

    The Comedy of the Stupids!

    China’s, quick moving, coal polluted air makes up 10% of California’s smog.

    Keystone is dragging on and soon Canada will make a smart move and make a deal with the rest of the world. (We will forever be importing oil for our needs.)

    We are wasting our natural gas to fire up unnatural wind (natural wind is not a 50 story machine comprised of toxic chemicals built in China with our exported coal which comes back to this country in the form of smog).

    Whether the wind blows or not, we will be sitting in the dark, no coal, no oil, no gas, no nuclear………with those rotting 50 story machines sitting in our bag yards reminding us that when the great greenwashing occurred, our common sense left.

    This Boston Magazine story tells all but the behind the scenes truth. There is no place in the State of Massachusetts for the industrial wind turbine.

    And, if you ever want “the living bejesus” scared out of you, attend any of the meetings that Mark Beaton attends!

    xxx

    • clarity

      There is no place for industrial turbines near ridiculously huge homes worried that the tiniest view of a turbine blade will take away from the beauty of their golf course….

    • clarity

      There is no place for a turbine in the minds of people who choose to deny climate change which is fact…science.

    • clarity

      There is no place for turbines to those who have stock in big oil.

    • clarity

      No place for turbines for those who have been sucked in by propaganda circulated by special interest groups designed especially to convince people that oil is THE only way to go.

    • clarity

      Shame on the greed.

  • http://www.vce.org Annette Smith

    Jim Cummings of Acoustic Ecology has published a thorough review of the Chapman study about the claim of campaigners influencing property values, and also about the other study regarding the alleged “nocebo effect”. Cummings is trying to find the middle ground, and his evaluation of these two studies that have been picked up by media all over the world is worth reading http://acousticecology.org/wind/winddocs/health/AEI_ExpectationsAndHealthEffects.pdf

  • Richard Mann

    I am very happy to see these issues brought to the main stream.
    But NOCEBO is junk science. What kind of society blames the victimes for their illness? Yes, the sickness is real: British Medial Journal: http://www.bmj.com/content/344/bmj.e1527
    Canadian Family Physician: http://www.cfp.ca/content/59/5/473.full

    Evidence is mounting. When do we admit we made a mistake?

    http://Soundmann.com.

    • clarity

      We live right near a huge turbine and there is no noise 90% of the time. And when you can hear it, it is barely noticeable. One would have to WANT to be bothered by it. One would have to be looking for a problem.

  • Liberty

    Wind energy is only clean if you ignore what had to happen to construct the windmills in the first place, and if you ignore what has to happen when the wind isn’t blowing. Calling the project “No Fossil Fuel” is just silly. There has to be a fossil fuel generator ready to go online immediately when the wind stops blowing (in fact I believe it has to be idling in order to so), otherwise they don’t work at all. The kind of electricity used in homes has be generated in real time. Also silly is the claim that it has generated revenue. The only way a wind turbine can generate enough revenue to operate is to have a generous amount of direct government subsidy and an additional government mandate that the electric companies buy the power at higher cost than market rates. Without that, nobody would buy the electricity that a wind turbine generates, because it is so costly. Any claims of these things being economically worthwhile are hogwash that the proponents keep putting out because so few people have any clue how to measure the economic costs. If you don’t subtract the costs from the benefits then you cannot say a project has any value whatsoever. Wind turbines operate at a loss that is made up by taxpayers and ratepayers. Now of course proponents can say, “that is OK, it is a cost we are willing to impose on society to reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” but they have to be honest and quit presenting a bogus balance sheet, which is the equivalent of saying 1 + 1 = 5.

  • truth

    some assume the people that are complaining are telling the truth–numerous studies are being done by independent entities– I don’t think the anti (wind wise) people are going to like the results–at the appropriate the rest of the story will be told–

  • ka1axy

    Those who are against wind and solar energy need to remember that fossil fuels are also a losing proposition…we’re going to lose them, and it would be prudent to know with what energy source we are going to replace them *before* they run out. We need to try wind, solar and tidal generation *now*, so we understand the issues, before we need them.

    Of course, there’s always nuclear. It’s clean and efficient…just ask the residents of Fukushima. Nuclear has its advantages, but it, too, depends on a scarce resource, one that “keeps on giving”, long after its generating potential is gone.

    • Alec Sevins

      I see you buy into the fantasy that things other than fossil fuels (esp. oil) can sustain a bloated economy that was almost entirely grown with them. Explain to the readers how heavy trucks, trains and ships will ever be powered by electricity alone. Too much torque over too much distance is required. And the combustion of fossil fuels may be the only thing that can produce enough heat for heavy industrial processes like smelting. A “100% renewable” dream doesn’t pass even a simple physics assessment, and the landscape destruction from wind turbines is quite bleak to aesthetic environmentalists who operate beyond the anthropocentric cult of sustainability.

      Nothing else this century (if ever) is having such a radical impact on scenery in far flung locations that don’t depend on geological formations. That’s why wind turbines are now visible to many more people than coal mines or even fracking. They are a growing intrusion on rural life and wild scenery we took for granted as permanent.

  • clarity

    Wind turbine syndrome is a suggestion planted in the minds of impressionable victims. Often these impressionable people are in need of attention or in need of something on which to blame their unhappy lives. It is very sad really. Removing a turbine will not end their pain and when their Don Quixote battle ends, they are left feeling empty.

    • Alec Sevins

      Sure, and have you ever spent time in the affected homes? There is no way to make a giant machine that doesn’t emit insidious noise with low frequency components. You can do a small scale experiment with a free-spinning desktop fan on a windy day, and mentally magnify its noise. Stand at different locations to simulate different effects on homes.

  • http://wslfconwaymausa.blogspot.com/ richardstafursky

    Amy Crawford seems to be using the straw-man argument. It is more than human health concerns. Windmill cause major harm to the natural landscape in all the ways landforms and species can be harmed. Sometimes wind farms are on government land set aside for native forests. Remember when recycling began in the US with collection igloos? There wasn’t zoning for them and then there was zoning and then they disappeared, because better curb-side collection was “invented.” We’re going to be decommissioning wind farms sooner than you think. Like biomass burning forest incinerators wind farms are faux green machines that some state governments pretend are green. Grants directed toward both of these energy “solutions” should be directed toward things that work or will work in the near future and which never harm the environment. I’d start with a proven technology. I’d start with insulation, conservation and hundred percent recycling to save energy. Wind turbines are always used to extend energy use into new territories. They do not to replace anything.

    • Alec Sevins

      Well put. Rooftop solar makes a lot more sense, with almost nil visual impact, but utilities don’t like decentralized power. If they really cared about the environment they’d lease solar panels to homeowners and monitor power use remotely. It’s already being done with smart-meters anyhow. Once in awhile, workers could visit the homes to make sure nobody’s cheating.

  • Danny Cummings

    For the love of God, quit f’ing whining. It’s all u Americans do for Christ’s sake; waa waa waa. We, and the rest of the families in our neighbourhood, have lived very close (within about 500 meters) to several wind turbines for years now and not a single one of us (out of 116 people) has had a complaint. No mysterious illnesses (how can 3 fibreglass blades spinning in the wind make u sick?), no noise complaints (they barely make any sound at all) and they’re certainly not “ugly” looking, nor have they decreased our property values. Since they were erected, our hydro bills have gone down 50% (for all residents of our city). Then of course there are the proven environmental benefits. So, I can’t figure out why you’re all moaning like a bunch of children, except that maybe Americans simply love to whine. Now, I don’t want to generalize here, but I do watch the news (except for ‘Faux News’, as I like to hear the truth) and you people are always carrying on about something. They’re just windmills! Find something actually important to be concerned about.

    • Alec Sevins

      You are posting the usual, devious response to these complaints, easily debunked with basic research. The noise doesn’t affect all locations equally and just because you got lucky doesn’t make the others whiners. The visual blight alone is an affront to nature and merely adds to other forms of man-made damage. There are already over a quarter million of these skyscrapers fouling the world’s landscapes and anyone with a shred of aesthetic values should seriously question more of them. It’s the biggest mass construction project I can think of, certainly the tallest.