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Archive for March, 2011

Is wind energy compatible with cities?  Wind energy is already here and creating controversy in some Massachusetts towns.  In other cities, wind energy is hardly noticeable. For instance, there are wind turbines located at Logan airport, City Hall, the Museum of Science (more on these next post), and on Deer Island in Boston Harbor.

While most people hardly notice Boston’s turbines, Falmouth’s 1.65MW wind turbine isn’t as lucky and has even come under legal fire.  According to the Falmouth Bulletin, six Falmouth residents who live within 3,200 feet of the turbine filed suit against the town and the zoning board of appeals over the zoning decision related to the turbine.  Also, they and other Falmouth residents assert that the noise from the turbine has caused them to suffer physical symptoms, such as loss of sleep and headaches.

On the other side of the Bourne Bridge, Wareham residents have also mounted opposition to a proposal to construct six wind turbines on local cranberry farms, the so-called Bog Wind Power Cooperative Project.  On March 23rd, Wareham held a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing on the project.  During the meeting, real-estate appraiser Michael McCann of McCann Appraisal, LLC, asserted that $70 to $120 million in home market values could be lost in Wareham as a result of the 400 foot wind turbines.  McCann has served as a consultant to residents in several communities considering wind turbine projects, including in Illinois, New Hampshire, and Brewster, Massachusetts.  In response to McCann, Glen Berkowitz, president of Beaufort Windpower, LLC, argued that McCann’s estimates were based on large scale wind farms with dozens of turbines.  Beaufort Windpower has partnered with bog owners to develop the project.  It’s not yet clear what the final rulings will be on the turbines in Wareham and Falmouth.

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) is funding community wind projects throughout the state (including Falmouth).  Recently, MassCEC awarded $1 million to help fund wind energy projects in eight Massachusetts communities.  The awards were a part of the Community-Scale Wind Initiative, which provides feasibility study and design and production grants for community wind projects through a competitive application process.

To help New England communities judge the worthiness of wind projects, the Department of Energy has created the New England Wind Energy Education Project (NEWEEP).  This two-year program is part of the Wind Powering America Market Acceptance Program, which is funded by the Department of Energy.  NEWEEP seeks to provide objective information about wind energy through webinars, online information, and public forums.  Since the project’s start in 2010, NEWEEP has organized discussions on various topics, including shadow flicker, wind energy transmission, turbine sound, and the effects of wind turbines on public health and property values.

Research is needed to assure residents that wind energy does not harm human health.  In July 2010, Dr. Robert J. McCunney, a research scientist from MIT, led a NEWEEP public forum that presented an analysis of peer-reviewed studies on the health effects of wind turbines.  One finding McCunney presented was that wind turbine noise does not create a risk of hearing loss.  Also, people experience feelings of annoyance from turbine noise, and this annoyance may manifest itself as stress-related physical symptoms.  Third, existing studies indicate that sub audible low frequency noise and infrasound from wind turbines do not present a risk to public health.  The simulcast of this public forum is available under Wind Turbine Noise and Health: Facts vs Fiction.

NEWEEP also explored concerns over the effects of wind turbines on property values in the Impact of Wind Power Projects on Residential Property Values Webinar.  In the webinar, Ben Hoen, a consultant for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories (LBNL), reviews existing study findings and also presents the results of the LBNL study The Impact of Wind Power Projects on Residential Property Values in the United States: A Multi-Site Hedonic Analysis.  The LBNL researchers found that there is an “absence of evidence that sales prices of homes without views of turbines and further than one mile from the nearest turbine are stigmatized by the arrival of a facility.”  Also, researchers did not find evidence that “sales prices of homes with a view of the turbines are uniquely stigmatized.”

To listen to this webinar and others, you can visit New England Wind Energy Education Project Webinars.   NEWEEP’S framing principle is that “the impacts of wind power projects are rarely as dire as opponents would suggest and are often not as innocuous as proponents would hope (and represent). “  They explain that “wind energy has many benefits, but some places are not suited for wind generation.”  In order to discern suitable projects, the public and officials need unbiased, objective information.

Next….more on urban wind turbines.

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The Solar Boston initiative continues to outshine many other solar programs around the country.  In addition to the Solar Boston Interactive GIS Maps, Boston has also adopted measures to facilitate the completion of solar projects.  Last fall, the Boston City Council approved Mayor Menino’s solar permitting guidelines, which reduced solar project permitting fees up to 60%.  In addition, Boston has created the Solar Permitting Guide to streamline the permit process and educate residents, businesses, and solar installers.  The guide provides information about PV technology, net metering, installation methods, permitting, and government incentives.

Other cities throughout the country have adopted Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs to spur renewable energy projects.  Under PACE programs, localities issue bonds to create a loan pool to help local property owners finance renewable energy and efficiency projects.  Property owners repay their loans through assessments on their property taxes or other locally collected bills over the course of a decade or more.  The idea of attaching the loan directly to the property is that the loan for the improvement stays with the party that will benefit from the improvement, rather than the property owner who might sell the property.  By extending loan repayment over decades, the monthly savings from energy cost reductions are in closer proportion to the monthly repayment of the project’s costs.

PACE programs began in Berkeley, CA, in 2008 with Berkeley First.  Through the Berkeley First’s pilot round, 13 property owners completed solar installation projects.  In November 2010, Berkeley released the findings of the program valuation, which involved participant surveys and a cost benefit analysis.  Of the 40 original applicants, twenty-seven applicants withdrew after being accepted into the program. The evaluation states that the most prevalent reason for withdrawal was the program’s relatively high interest rate.  The high interest rate is attributed to the small size of the pilot round, the newness of PACE financing, and the poor conditions of the financial market in 2008.  Fortunately, nine withdrawals reported that they completed solar energy projects with other funding options like home equity loans.  Among the survey respondents that completed a project through Berkeley First, 64% expect their PV system to generate 75% or more of their electricity consumption.  All respondents reported that Berkeley First was a significant motivator in the decision to complete a project.

Through the cost benefit analysis, Berkeley calculated that over a 25 year window the estimated net present value of the program is negative $71,000 on a $326,000 total investment.  If carbon savings are added in, the estimated net present value changes to negative $48,000.  Combined with the survey findings, the results of the pilot round are clearly mixed.  However, the evaluation indicates that there are ways to improve future project’s cost effectiveness and overall success.  First, undertaking an extensive outreach education program can help to motivate eligible property owners to utilize private financing options in place of public financing.  This will help to reduce withdrawals and also ensure that public funds are allocated to individuals that are least able to acquire private financing.  In addition, the evaluation indicates that the most economical projects were those in high energy use sites and also that smaller PV systems tended to be more economical.  So, if future programs are designed to promote projects with the greatest potential for savings, cost effectiveness is likely to increase.  Finally, increasing the program’s size may help to attract more funding options with lower interest rates.  This will improve the net present value of a program and also reduce program withdrawals.  Berkeley First provided valuable insights into the potential of well-designed PACE programs to spur renewable energy projects.

Since Berkeley First, 23 states and D.C. passed legislation that enabled local governments to create PACE programs.  Massachusetts is not among the states that enable PACE programs. Unfortunately, in July 2010, the Federal Home and Financing Agency (FHFA) issued a directive to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Federal Home Loan Banks that severely restricted their involvement with properties involved in PACE programs. The FHFA’s stated rationale is that these debt obligations could threaten the housing market, lenders, and tax payers.  In August 2010, Freddie Mac issued a bulletin stating that it will not purchase “mortgages secured by properties subject to PACE obligations that provide for First Lien priority.”  Because of these actions, most residential PACE programs were suspended.

Litigation against FHFA’s directive is currently underway in California, New York, and Florida.  In July 2010, Senator Barbara Box sponsored the PACE Assessment Protection Act of 2010, but the bill has not moved since its introduction.  The bill would “ensure that the underwriting standards of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac facilitate the use of property assessed clean energy programs to finance the installation of renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements.”  Last month, the National Association of Counties and the League of Cities sent a joint letter urging Congress to support PACE programs.  The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners also issued a resolution in support of PACE.  Without legislative action or a policy change at the FHFA, residential PACE programs are effectively not a viable option for communities.

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The Boston Green Awards will now include the Sustainable Food Leadership Award, which will honor local businesses that demonstrate an extraordinary effort to provide Boston residents and visitors the “freshest, local food in the most sustainable manner.”  The Boston Green Awards recognize residents and businesses for exemplary sustainability practices.  Nominations for the 2011 awards close in March.

The addition of the Sustainable Food Leadership Award reflects the growth of Boston’s sustainable food movement. Between 2004 and 2010, the number of farmers markets in the city more than doubled from 13 to 28. Additionally, Mayor Menino’s Bounty Bucks Program allows Boston residents participating in the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to use their EBT card at participating farmers markets, and receive a 50% discount for the first $20 in goods they purchase.  Last summer, Mayor Menino also officially unveiled an organic chicken farm located on Long Island in Boston Harbor.  For more information about all of Boston’s food initiatives visit the Food section on the City of Boston website.

Like Boston, New York City is working to develop a more sustainable food system to reduce the system’s impacts on the environment.  In November 2010, NYC Councilwoman Christine Quinn announced the creation of FoodWorks, a program designed to bolster upstate New York farms, increase local food production, reduce dietary diseases like obesity, and promote a greener food system. Councilwoman Quinn explained that FoodWorks will not only improve NYC’s food system, but also put New Yorkers to work.

The FoodWorks blueprint is a “ground to garbage approach,” which includes 59 proposals relating to food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and post consumption.  Proposals include expanding farmers markets for small farmers (Union Sqaure GreenMarket seen right), building a permanent space for a wholesale farmers market for medium and large local farmers, and ensuring urban farms are counted in the census to gain more federal resources.  Also, the NYC Council will work to identify city-owned buildings for roof gardens and institute guidelines requiring city agencies to purchase food from local producers.  To improve the city’s food processing and distribution, recommendations include helping food manufacturers gain access to energy efficiency programs and also creating a wash, cut, and bag facility to process local produce to be used by the NYC Department of Education.  Finally, to further reduce environmental damage from the food system, the city will promote residential and commercial composting, and try to increase the use of rail to transport food within the city.  The next steps for FoodWorks will be to establish a NYC Food Council to track progress and elicit nongovernmental input.

While we applaud these efforts to support local farmers, the movement has a tough row to hoe.  In a recent American Prospect article “Slowed Food Revolution”, Heather Rogers identifies hurdles facing organic farmers including higher production costs, higher retail prices, and a smaller infrastructure to process and sell their products.  Also, with government agricultural subsidies, loans, and research funding going largely to conventional farming, non-conventional farmers must climb an even steeper hill to gain market share and compete.  Under the Obama Administration, small steps are being made to support organic farmers.  Rogers reports that the USDA is reforming the National Organic Program to end corruption and is also providing the program more funding.  Time will tell if the sustainable food movement reaches the wider masses.

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