Island voters, homeowners are pro wind farms

Mon, 08/17/2009 - 4:00am
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08/15/09 - Block Island voters and homeowners support wind power, including both on- and offshore wind farm installations, according to the results of a Roger Williams University survey.

Dr. Lefteris Pavlides met with Town Council members Wednesday to provide an overview of the survey numbers. He will give a more detailed presentation at the Block Island Residents Association meeting Saturday.

The numbers are of special interest given Deepwater Wind’s proposal to install two wind farms near Block Island: a five to eight turbine group three miles off the southeast side of the island, and a much larger farm 15 miles east of the island.

Pavlides explained that the survey targeted two groups: island voters and non-voting homeowners (actually non-voting taxpayers). If someone was both a homeowner and a voter, he or she was counted as a voter.

Surveys were sent to 1,484 voters — everyone on the town’s voter list — and 547 were filled out and returned, a response rate of 42.34 percent. (There were 192 that were undeliverable; Pavlides quipped that the survey performed a “public service” by identifying incorrect addresses for future tax bills.)

There were 728 surveys mailed to the remaining non-voting homeowners (tallied from the town’s tax roll, said Town Clerk Molly Fitzpatrick), of which 418 responses were returned, or 58 percent — an “astronomical” number, said Pavlides.

As to the million — or perhaps billion — dollar question about prevailing island sentiment in regard to wind farms: 92.8 percent of the voters responded that they supported wind energy in general, as did 86.1 of the homeowners. (5.9 percent of the homeowners did not support wind energy; as did 3.2 of the voters).

And even more telling, 63.3 percent of the voters and 56.4 percent of the homeowners said they would support a wind installation — land-based or offshore — that was visible from their homes, with the proviso that the wind farm be far away enough to be “impossible to hear.”

Seven percent of homeowners opposed any installation, as did 6.8 percent of the voters. (For most questions the survey provided choices between support and opposition, such as “neither” or “not sure.”)

Similarly, 71.9 percent of the voters and 65.9 of the homeowners would support a land-based wind turbine at the island’s transfer station.

Asked if they would support a five to eight turbine wind farm installation within three nautical miles from the island that included a link to the island, 83.9 percent of the voters would support it, as would 71 percent of the homeowners.

“As you can see, you don’t have to go far off to get support,” said Pavlides.

If a similar farm were proposed with no link to the island, 51.5 of the voters would oppose it, as would 62.4 of the homeowners.

As far as a wind farm at or beyond three miles from the island, 80.2 percent of the voters supported it, as did 76.2 of the voters.

A wind farm located more than 12 miles away was supported by 87.6 percent of voters, and 84.2 percent of homeowners.

The surveys also asked if the respondents would be more likely to support a wind farm if it were part of a network of similar farms, stretching from Cape Hatteras, N.C. to Cape Cod, amounting to some 54,000 turbines, providing for 100 percent of the electricity needs of the East Coast. In response, 63.6 of the voters said they be more inclined to support such a farm, while 56.3 of the non-voting taxpayers did.

In terms of gender, 62.7 percent of the homeowner respondents were male; in the voters category, 48 percent were male; female respondents, correspondingly, made up 37.3 percent of the homeowner respondents and 52 percent of the voter group.

Looking at the largest segments of responders in terms of age range, 25.3 of percent of the homeowners were between 50 and 59; 31 percent between 60 and 69; and 20.6 percent between 70 and 79. For voters, 17.8 percent were between 50 and 59; 29.5 percent between 60 and 69; and 16.6 percent between 70 and 79.

As far as income range, the majority of the voters were listed between $50,000 to $150,000 a year, while the majority of homeowners ranged between $100,000 and $250,000 or more a year (in fact 35 percent of the homeowners were at the highest income level).

Questions

First Warden Kim Gaffett asked if a non-voting taxpayer who owned five different properties on the island received five separate surveys. Pavlides explained that the owner should have received only one.

In the event a single property had a number of owners, a system was devised to give the different owners a percentage of a single vote.

Respondents also provided a range of commentary, Pavlides said, that will eventually become available; for some economics was more important, while the environment was more important for others.

Barbara MacMullan, a member of the town’s Electric Utility Task Group, asked if the results were possibly skewed because of the interests of those responding.

Pavlides said the large response indicated to him that the results were not skewed. He pointed out that in a similar wind energy survey he conducted in Bristol he paid each respondent $25, both to encourage participation and to mitigate against extreme positions on the issue.

Bill Wilson wondered what the response would have been had the survey asked if respondents would be willing to pay more to facilitate the installation of a cable or farm.

Second Warden Ray Torrey asked if it would be possible to pinpoint where certain opinions prevailed on the island — for example, what did residents on the south side of the island think?

Pavlides said the names and addresses of respondents, which will soon be destroyed, are already entirely divorced from their actual responses. Meaning, he could map out where all the respondents lived, but not how they voted.

He clarified for Cliff McGinnes Sr. that a “small percentage” of respondents refused to sign the survey release. In these cases, he said a second mailing was sent to them.

Town Councilor Peter Baute, who has been the council’s liaison in the effort, explained that in his experience helping tabulate the survey, less than 10 responses out of 100 were returned unsigned.

Pavlides said that in his Bristol survey the respondents with the highest education also gave the highest approval; the results were the same on Block Island.

Pavlides praised Brown University public health graduate student Stephen Kerr for his help crunching the numbers. He said that none of the social sciences are “as nimble or experienced” with statistics as public health, because they conduct studies on a more frequent basis. He also praised Prof. Jeremy Firestone of the University of Delaware for being a trailblazer in the realm of wind farm surveys.

Pavlides said the total cost of the survey was about $10,000, primarily for postage and to pay graduate students. It was paid for with funds left from a state grant looking into wind energy. He offered his thanks to the many island and mainland volunteers who helped facilitate the survey.