United States: Massachusetts to help small projects

Construction approval standardised.

Massachusetts is expected to approve a law by the year end to simplify wind project approval, standardising the patchwork of construction permission procedures.

Current state law provides a faster, uniform process for energy projects 100 MW or more, but nearly all wind proposals in the small north-east state are much smaller scale. Detractors blame this law for the fact that only 7 MW of wind is installed in the state.

"We've really got a broken system if your goal is to facilitate wind development," says Ken Kimmell of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. "The irony is that it's easier to site large fossil fuel power plants than small wind facilities."

The bill reduces the threshold for the revamped process to 2 MW. Supporters say the uniformity should facilitate the construction permission process while still catering to concerns that the law may erode local control.

"Some towns are concerned that the state is, in effect, taking away their power," Kimmell says. "We don't agree. We need to continue to sit down with our municipal partners and talk through what the bill does."

Local power remains

Permitting power would remain at the local level but would shift to a statewide standard in accordance with the state energy facility siting commission. Appeals would go directly to the state supreme court. Kimmell believes this will be as protective as the existing law, including accounting for important habitat or scenic areas and residential buffer zones.

"We may have to tweak it some more and compromise, which we're happy to talk about," he says. "But we think the bill will get passed. This is about creating a level playing field ... where people who want to build wind farms in the right places are welcomed."

Two Massachusetts developments, the 30 MW Hoosac Wind and the 15 MW Berkshire Wind projects, have struggled to negotiate the existing permissions framework. A small group of opponents has stalled Hoosac for nearly five years with an appeal over crossing a stream with an access road, while Berkshire, a co-operative project collectively owned by a group of more than a dozen municipal utilities, was in the pipeline for more than a decade before recently gaining permission to begin preliminary development work.

Many factors point to big opportunities to develop wind energy in Massachusetts. Relatively high power prices make wind projects more competitive than in other parts of the country. Governor Deval Patrick's goal is 2 GW by 2020, while a state law requires that utilities purchase clean power directly or buy equivalent credits.