Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fall Zones & the Issue of Consistency

For obvious reasons, the fall zone for a wind turbine or met tower is an important concern for all stakeholders. The fall zone is defined to approximate the area around the base of the turbine that would likely receive the tower and turbine, or the met tower, if it were to fall. It is often set by local ordinance to be 1 or perhaps 1.25 times the height of the turbine.

Some years ago we were working with Upper Cape Tech Vocational Technical School, discussing the installation of a 660 kW turbine. Unfortunately, the only reasonable location for the turbine placed the fall zone too close to a neighbor's woods. It was OK with the neighbor that the fall zone include part of his woods, but it was not OK with the state funding agency. That was the end of the project.

In the past year this issue was rejoined for a project in Falmouth. The owner was proposing to install a GE 1.5mW turbine that would have a fall zone overlapping a neighbor's property. Again the neighbor was prepared to sign a document granting the right for the turbine to fall on his again unused property. This time the funding was private, so the discussion continued in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals for the town. The Board insisted that the neighbor write a codicil into his deed indicating that the fall zone would include this certain part of his property. The Board also pushed hard that the owner locate the wind turbine closer to his own building and further from the neighboring property, minimizing the overlap onto the neighbor’s property. All parties cooperated and the building permit was granted.

This perhaps demonstrates that some governmental bodies can be more legalistic and bureaucratic than others, and that time and the right circumstances can help in establishing a workable precedent among agreeable parties.

Now consider also that the are no fall zone restrictions for cell towers, per the Telecommunications Act of 1996 ( On one hand this would seem to indicate that an unfair hand has been dealt to wind turbine developers. By that I mean to point out that fall zone restrictions represent one of a number of means by which those against change can prevent wind turbine installations in a town.

On the other hand, those against cell towers (for example, ( would argue that the Federal government, or perhaps the mis-interpretations commonly given to Federal law, give the cell phone developers an unfair advantage over local people who do not want a cell tower looming over their house or their property. Mike M. at the above address argues that allowing cell tower owners to do this represents a taking of property without proper compensation, a violation of the 5th Amendment.

I do not know enough about law to be able to write a cogent opinion about Mike's arguement. However, I know from experience that it is problematic finding adequate space for a fall zone on densely built-up property in such places as Massachusetts. I also think that consenting parties ought to be allowed to work out reasonable accommodations with each other. (That does not mean that the health and safety of children in a school should be threatened by a neighbor's wind turbine.) It is also important for our country that renewable energy be supported and fostered. Thus, it may be reasonable and desirable that state or national authorities establish restrictions on local fall zone bylaws. The fall zone bylaws for wind turbines, and certainly for meteorological towers, should not be dramatically more strict than for cell towers.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Solar Energy, Small Farming, and Last Snow

Earlier today I went walking with my camera to capture some pictures that illustrate the relation of terrain and foliage to ambient and ground temperature. In one direction I discovered that I was a day late. I had missed the last snow before it melted. In the other direction I was going to lower ground, and I captured what I wanted.

In the first picture we see snow on the north-facing rise to the south of the tracks. No surprise there. A question that might be asked is why the snow has melted on the other north-facing slopes.

In the second picture we see that there is still a small area of ice adjacent to the stream. You can see the sunlight and shadows playing on the ice, so this spot has not been entirely shaded during the winter and spring. This suggests that the remaining ice is on very low ground, where the cold air falls.

The next picture is of the stream, which typically is covered with ice during the winter. You can see remaining snow to the left, where it is both on low ground (remember cold air is heavier than warm air, and therefore goes to the low ground), partly shaded by evergreens, and on the north-facing side.

Thus there are at least three factors in the temperatures for a particular location. When I was once looking for some land in New Hampshire for a house and field, the realtor showed me a plot with a pitch facing north and sloping down to the north. As would be predicted from solar energy calculations, this was cool during the summer, but was also a poor solar site -- the last area to be ready for planting. I rejected that plot. If I had only been concerned with a cool summer house, I might have made an offer. But I was concerned with raising food as well as warmth during the winter, so I rejected it.

These scenes may appear to be just what they are, but to a physicist there is more. When I get time, maybe I will write about the unseen things in these photos. These include various forms of electromagnetic radiation. Hmmm ... I did not see any birds either. I wonder why. I have seen birds such as geese migrating north, but maybe it is not yet time for the song birds.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Governor Patrick's Transportation and Economic Security Plan

Some notes on Governor Patrick's Transportation and Economic Security Plan which Reforms Big-Dig Culture, Rebuilds Trust and Transparency to Help Secure the Commonwealth's Economic Future. Fundamentally, I agree with the vast majority of what is mentioned below. That being acknowledged, here are my concerns and disagreements.

  • We need even a larger gas tax. There are many improvements that are critical to accomplish soon in our public transportation systems. These, like all the other items already in the budget, will cost money, and we must support them. It will also set the price of gas to be what it would have been if there were not Federal subsidies for gas and diesel. This in turn will move our marketplace economy to manifest reality better.
  • We need to start now to expand the subway and rail systems by establishing mega-stations at the crossing points of the commuter rail lines and Route 128. These stations need much more parking and capacity than was designed into the Alewife station, which was initially so very successful that it was overwhelmed with demand within a few years of its completion.
  • I do not yet have enough information to know what the impacts will be for the proposed personnel plans. Although many of us pay electronically with transponders for our use of the Massachusetts Turnpike, there continue to be long lines at the manual booths to pay tolls. Is the proposal really to eliminate these manual booths and oblige everyone to pay by transponder? Some will object merely on the basis that they do not use the Pike enough to warrant investing time and perhaps money in a transponder. Others will object to Big Brother being able to track our driving.
  • My impression is that the MBTA, if it is to serve its purpose, needs to be funded more reliably with more money each year. As a society we need to make a commitment to mass transportation to bring the MBTA to the level of the Montreal and Washington D.C. mass transit systems.
  • To me a key part of the purpose of the mass transit system is to get people out of their polluting cars. Right now it is apparent that the Boston area automotive system is broken. During the extended rush hours, cars spend 40% of their travel time, sometimes much more, idling while waiting for lights or traffic jams. This is very much not green, and not energy efficient. If we are to tackle the global warming situation, this is a key place to change things. Low hanging fruit.
  • We need to start projects now, because it takes many years to plan them and execute them. We cannot achieve our carbon goals if we wait to the last minute.
  • A longstanding issue is the willingness of us suburbanites to fund or pay for infrastructure in the Big City. While we want enough of our money to go to our local communities, we do use Boston facilities, and we want them to be strong. We do not want to break our axles on poorly maintained Boston streets, we would be alarmed to see the Salt and Pepper Shaker Bridge" crumbling, and we do not want public transportation to be unrealiable. We want our money to be used frugally and wisely, and we want an adequate amount used to maintain the infrastructure in Boston.

I asked three public questions of the Governor during the Town Hall Meeting. One was the statement about megastations. One was about the need for enough money to go to Boston. Finally, I posed the question that emerged from my discussion with the conservative blogger sitting immediately to my left. I did this because by happenstance he was not going to get his chance.

So I asked, in my words, whether adequate effort had been made at this point to assure that there was no more fat in the transportation budgets, before we start adding taxes. My conservative colleague squeeled with delight and thanked me for asking the question. When I was back home I shared with my wife that I might have turned to him and said, "That is part of what being Liberal and Christian is about." (This is not to say that many Liberals are not concerned with cost effectiveness and wise use of resources. It is to say that too many on the Right seem to be so concerned with their own causes that they lack empathy for others' concerns and needs, which may well become their own all too soon.) In any case, the Governor was very ready for the question and hit a home run.

Governor Patrick has announced a plan to end the "Big Dig" culture and build a long-term, sustainable transportation base to support job growth and economic development in Massachusetts.
The plan includes:
Restructuring and simplifying our transportation bureaucracy, including abolishing the Turnpike Authority
Ending the "23 and out" special perk in the MBTA pension system
Bringing the Turnpike and MBTA employees into the state health care system
Increasing accountability and transparency throughout the transportation system
Making our transportation system more environmentally-responsible
Streamlining operations and eliminating 300 positions
Working to move MassHighway personnel off the capital budget and back onto the regular payroll
Providing a responsible, long-term funding source to fix our roads and bridges, pay down our existing debt, and secure our economic future
The plan is transparent and accountable on the new revenue from a 19-cent increase in the gas tax, accounting for and dedicating each new penny to a specific transportation initiative:
4 cents to roll back the proposed toll increases on the Turnpike
6 cents to preserve current MBTA services and prevent a fare increase
1 cent for Innovative Gas and Toll Solutions
1.5 cents for Regional Transit Authorities
1.5 cents for targeted regional road projects
3 cents for rail projects outside of Boston
2 cents to address the costly practice of paying for personnel with bond funds
The gas tax has not been increased since 1991. The plan embraces all of the Transportation Finance Commission reforms, which they estimated would save $2.5 billion over 20 years.
The TFC stated that "the real cost of this neglect will be felt in our regional economy and in our way of life," and that "business as usual will not suffice."
This plan builds on our existing reforms, including:
Joining 49 other states in using civilian flaggers on construction projects
Streamlining by 40% project delivery time at MassHighway
Saving $47 million at the MBTA by reducing overtime costs and staff levels and increasing employee health care contributions
Saving $31 million at the Turnpike by eliminating middle management and toll takers
With the legislature's support, launching the Accelerated Bridge Repair Program to address the backlog of maintenance projects left by previous administrations