It’s been a long and winding road for development of wind power in Vermont. After more than a decade of wrangling, developers have yet to build a single project in the state. But it’s possible that three out of seven proposals now in the works – one in southern Vermont and two in the Northeast Kingdom — may come to fruition, that is if public opinion and the regulatory process don’t nip them in the bud.
One of the most promising is in the Orleans County town of Lowell. Voters here turned out in large numbers on Town Meeting Day to support a commercial wind project, voting 342-114 to back Kingdom Community Wind’s plan to install 20 to 24 turbines that could produce up to three megawatts of power each. According to Green Mountain Power, it’s enough electricity to power 20,000 average Vermont households.
Green Mountain Power, along with Vermont Electric Cooperative, would own the project, and officials from the utilities immediately issued a press release saying how thrilled they were about the vote.
But given Vermont’s rocky history with wind projects, Lowell’s support may not mean much.
So far, only one project has been built — in Searsburg – and that was 13 years ago.
Of the seven wind farms that have been under development in Deerfield, Sheffield, East Haven, Ira, Grandpa’s Knob (in the Castleton area), Georgia and Lowell – only two have been given the go ahead by the Public Service Board (it has approved certificates of public good for Deerfield and Sheffield). Developers have pulled out of East Haven and Grandpa’s Knob, and voters put the kibosh on the Ira project. The certificate of public good for the Georgia project is pending.
Two factors most often waylay projects: public opposition and regulatory glitches.
The fight in Sheffield
Nearly six years ago, in December of 2005, voters in Sheffield turned out in unusually high numbers to approve a wind farm on Hard Scrabble Mountain by a vote of 120-93. At the time, the moderator of the meeting said more people had voted on the project than had voted for president that November.
Two years later, in the summer of 2007, First Wind, owner of the would-be wind farm in Sheffield, received a Certificate of Public Good from the Vermont Public Service Board to produce 40 megawatts of power – enough for 15,000 to 20,000 homes.
Officials from the company said they hoped to have the Sheffield Wind Farm completed by the end of 2008.
Ridge Protectors, Inc., has consistently challenged the project on environmental grounds and has spent several hundred thousand dollars to kill it.
It’s now 2010, and construction hasn’t even started. The proposal for 16 industrial-sized, 400-foot towers has been dogged by controversy and appeals every step of the way. It’s hung up in Vermont Environmental Court at the moment, following a December trial that focused largely on questions about the impact of the project on a wetland. John Lamontagne at First Wind said they’re hoping for a
decision soon so they can move forward.
A vocal and persistent minority, which formed a citizens group known as Ridge Protectors, Inc., has fought the Sheffield project. The group has consistently challenged the project on environmental grounds and has spent several hundred thousand dollars to kill it.
Survey says Vermonters support wind generation
In theory, Vermonters support wind power. According to a survey conducted in February by the Massachusetts-based Civil Society Institute, 92 percent of Vermonters surveyed saw nuclear as a “power source of yesterday” compared with 94 percent who are in favor of solar, 92 percent for wind and 78 percent for hydroelectric as “power sources of tomorrow” that should play a bigger role in the U.S. energy supply picture. The Civil Society Institute is a nonpartisan think tank.
A proposed project that voters in Ira nixed earlier this month, for example, would have raised $400,000 to $640,000 a year for their town.
In practice, however, building a wind farm in Vermont is no easy matter – even when the deal is sweetened with hundreds of thousands dollars a year in tax revenues for towns. A proposed project that voters in Ira nixed earlier this month, for example, would have raised $400,000 to $640,000 a year for their town, according to a report by Vermont Public Radio.
So far, the lone wind farm in Searsburg has 11 turbines and produces six megawatts of power. When it went on online in 1997, it was the biggest commercial wind farm east of the Mississippi, said Dorothy Schnure, spokeswoman for GMP. It was, in fact, a test case for how wind would perform in cold climates.
GMP operates the Searsburg farm, and Schnure said it has performed well enough that the utility has pursued other wind projects.
Residents of Searsburg don’t seem to mind the turbines, said Town Clerk Josie Kilbride. “We’ve had some opposition to noise, but not a great deal. There’s a few who don’t like the looks of them. My opinion is they’re not noisy. I live within a mile of them, and I don’t hear them.”
Kilbride said the tax revenues are a boon for the town (last year the project generated $182,715 for Searsburg’s coffers), and the farm, ironically, attracts tourists who want to look at the towers.
Town by town, however, as in the case of Sheffield, there is often fierce opposition to wind power projects.
Ira voters say no to wind
Earlier this month, the same day that Lowell voters decided to support a 40 to 60 megawatt wind farm with 20-24 commercial wind towers, voters in the town of Ira, west of Rutland, emphatically rejected a proposal that would have included three times the number of wind turbines on Lowell Mountain.
“To make a long story short, the townspeople do not support wind on our ridges,” said Christine Tyminksi, chair of the Ira Selectboard. “Why Ira? We’re just this tiny little town.”
Just under a year ago, the selectboard was presented with a petition signed by about 120 residents asking them to take any and all action possible to oppose the 90-megawatt industrial wind turbine project being undertaken by Vermont Community Wind Farm, LLC, on Mount Herrick in Ira and Poultney. The project would have consisted of 60 wind turbines 400 feet tall, 39 of which were to be installed along the ridgelines in Ira.
The project would have swallowed Ira, Tyminski said. “It’s been really tough. Everybody has their own personal opinion. But basically the community has spoken. We’re not in favor of it.”
In a letter written to the Rutland Herald following the Town Meeting Day vote, she and the chair of the planning commission, Timothy Martin, asked Vermont Community Wind Farm to respect the town’s wishes. The vote in Ira is non-binding.
“Now that the community has spoken clearly through a petition, the town plan, and the referendum vote that it does not approve of commercial wind farm development on its ridgelines, we are calling upon VCWF to respect the wishes of the community and not pursue this project or any scaled-back version that conflicts with our plan and wishes,” the letter says.
Green energy proponents, conservationists divided
Wind power has created an odd conflict between Vermont environmentalists.
On one hand, wind is supported as a renewable energy source. On the other, many who consider themselves environmentally conscious see the placement of wind turbines on the state’s rural ridges as environmental degradation. Again and again, opponents have complained that dotting Vermont’s ridgelines with 400-foot wind towers would ruin the landscape, affect wildlife and create problems with
“We certainly know the history,” Schnure said. “Any way you generate electricity has pros and cons — we recognize that.”
She said that GMP is optimistic about the Lowell project despite the fact that two other projects that have been stalled by public opposition in Vermont.
One of the best-known opponents of commercial wind is Gov. Jim Douglas.
David O’Brien, commissioner of the Department of Public Service, said his boss’ stance on commercial windmills hasn’t changed. O’Brien said Vermont’s compact geography limits the scale of wind projects and the amount of energy they generate.
He said Douglas believes that in many instances, 400-foot wind towers don’t produce enough power to justify marring Vermont’s scenic vistas.
Long-time Vermont alternative energy developer Matthew Rubin said his East Mountain Demonstration Project was blocked by the Public Service Board and the Agency of Natural Resources because his company didn’t assess the impact turbines would have on bird migration; he argues there was no scientific basis for conducting such a study for four wind turbines.
He’s told the state agencies go slow — don’t let it happen. They make it take forever; that’s why the big development companies have pulled out of Vermont.”
Rubin said he is used to projects taking a long time, and he supports Vermont’s vaunted environmental protections, but he accuses the administration of purposely stalling projects.
“We have a governor who doesn’t want to see wind towers – that’s no secret,” Rubin said. “What is a secret is, he’s told the state agencies go slow — don’t let it happen. They make it take forever; that’s why the big development companies have pulled out of Vermont.”
The criticism of his department is unwarranted, O’Brien said. Vermonters are very cautious about all forms of development, he said, and windfarms are no different. He cited the ban on billboards and smart-growth initiatives as the bedrock of Vermont’s environmental cachet.
“There’s a place for the state to make sure these projects are in the public interest,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien says while the state doesn’t “put out the welcome mat for developers,” the governor has had no influence on his department or the Public Service Board’s decisions regarding wind, and he points out that two projects – in Sheffield and Deerfield – have recently received approval.
Some developers, though, have backed out. The original East Haven developers, including Rubin, passed the baton for their project to the Vermont Public Power Supply Authority, which represents municipal utilities. Noble Power pulled out of the Grandpa’s Knob project in Castleton, Hubbardton, Pittsford and Rutland, and sold its development leases to Manchester-based Reunion Power in December because of a lack of capital in the wake of the Lehmann Brothers collapse, according to a report in the Rutland Herald. (In a phone call, communications official Maggie Wisniewski wouldn’t say why the company left Vermont.) Green Mountain Power, which originally had planned to expand the Searsburg project, opted to involve another party, Iberdrola Renewables, in the so-called Deerfield project.
Rubin said as a result of the governor’s position on wind, developers are disinclined to come to the state, and consequently Vermont is falling behind its neighbors. Projects in New York, Maine and New Hampshire have moved forward, he said, while Vermont’s have been in limbo for one reason or another.
“Vermont starts to look sillier and sillier in terms of enlightened energy power,” Rubin said.
“Vermont is so much further ahead already in terms of renewable energy and our carbon footprint. Incrementally, we don’t have the same problem to solve.”
O’Brien disagreed: In his view, neighboring states are behind Vermont in terms of its renewable energy portfolio. “I didn’t know we were in a race,” O’Brien said, adding: “Vermont is so much further ahead already in terms of renewable energy and our carbon footprint. Incrementally, we don’t have the same problem to solve.”
In any case, he said, Vermont’s topography is a limiting factor for commercial windfarms. Proposed projects are necessarily very small by national standards, O’Brien said. The state simply doesn’t have the potential, in his view, to become a major market for wind.
Vermont utilities, however, are in the market for wind power. As it happens, GMP, for example, is looking out of state for wind generation. The utility is negotiating with Granite Reliable, a New Hampshire company, for a 20-year purchase power agreement for 25 percent of the output of a 99 megawatt project in Coos County, N.H., according to Schnure.
Language in new bill would streamline appeals
This year, the state Legislature is considering a plan to put appeals before the Public Service Board, rather than the courts, in order to make the regulatory process for wind projects more predictable.
Rep. Tony Klein, chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said Vermont policy is intended to support renewable energy.
“Yet we find it’s been almost impossible to carry out that policy,” Klein said. “Projects seem to be all bogged down in the permit process or appeals. We’re trying to send a message to investors that not only do we want these projects to be developed, but we also have one central, professional entity. If they were to be heard, that’s where they’d be heard.”
At the moment, permits could be appealed to the PSB, to Environmental Court, or to Superior Court. A developer could potentially have three cases going on simultaneously, which is expensive.
“There’s no clear path,” Klein said. “It’s not very attractive to come to Vermont at this point.” Running appeals through the PSB wouldn’t make it easier to get permits — the standards would remain the same — but there would be a predictable process, he said.
Vermont Public Interest Research Group, a pro-wind consumer advocacy organization, supports the idea of appeals going through the Public Service Board. Any developer, whether they’re building a housing development, a shopping mall or a wind farm, needs to follow the rules and regulations that are on the books, said James Moore, Clean Energy Program Director at VPIRG. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have Environmental Court re-litigate what’s already been reviewed by the PSB, he added.
The PSB could simply import a lot of the sworn testimony it’s already taken, rather than asking a court to hear it anew, Moore said.
“If the project should get built, let’s build it,” he said. “We should get to a yes or no in a reasonable fashion. I don’t think this is a be-all solution. It’s a small step.” But, he added, the current process is far from smooth and efficient government.
O’Brien says he doesn’t think changes to the regulatory process are necessary. The commissioner said he has heard complaints that the regulatory process is too easy for wind developers.“Is the process we’re applying now unfairly onerous or is it taking the proper steps?” O’Brien asks, rhetorically.
Addenda: project status
The Vermont Public Power Supply Authority has purchased the lease for the East Haven site, which could accommodate three to four windmills and generate 6 megawatts of power.
The Public Service Board recently issued a Certificate of Public Good to Iberdrola Renewables for a 17-turbine, 34-35.7 megawatt windfarm project on 80 acres in the Green Mountain National Forest. The project is an expansion of Searsburg. GMP is negotiating for a purchase power agreement with the company, according to Schnure.
H.W. Venture’s application for a certificate of public good for a three- to four-turbine, 12-megawatt windfarm on Georgia Mountain in Georgia is still pending.
Reunion Power, based in Manchester, bought the development rights for this project from Noble Power, a national firm. PSB has approved meteorological towers for the site.
PSB has approved meteorological towers for the site, but an application for the wind turbines haven’t been filed yet; voters approved the project earlier this month.
Rejected by voters earlier this month; approved for met towers only.
Approved by voters and the Public Service Board.
(Anne Galloway contributed to this report.)