Swanton wind will go ahead despite PSB setback

(This story was updated March 5, 2017, at 6 p.m. with a statement from Green Mountain Power President and CEO Mary Powell.)

The Public Service Board on Thursday denied a wind-power developer’s bid to secure a contract with Green Mountain Power, but left open the possibility of a separate contract under different terms.

Swanton Wind, whose principals, Travis and Ashley Belisle, hope to put as many as seven wind turbines on their land atop Rocky Ridge outside of Swanton, lost a case before the state regulators that would have required GMP to buy power under a now-expired set of rates prescribed by a federal renewable-energy program.

Travis Belisle
Travis Belisle and his wife are proposing to put seven wind turbines on their property in Swanton. Photo by Mike Polhamus/VTDigger

The Belisles may still apply to sell their power to GMP under that program’s new pricing structure, although it offers significantly less favorable terms to small power producers, said Swanton Wind spokesperson Anthony Iarrapino.

Swanton Wind may also seek to sell the project’s electricity to other utilities inside the state, or even outside Vermont’s borders, Iarrapino said.

Either way, the project will continue moving forward, he said.

“Swanton Wind is disappointed” with the board’s decision, Iarrapino said, “but Swanton Wind is fully committed to moving forward with the [permitting] process,” he said.

“We’re done the work to determine how this meets Vermont’s environmental standards, and will contribute to the public good and the clean-energy economy in the state, and we are very optimistic about the many possibilities to sell this power, either still in Vermont or else in New England, in a fashion that’ll help the region reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, particularly natural gas,” Iarrapino said.

Green Mountain Power has no intention of purchasing any further electricity from Vermont wind-energy producers in the foreseeable future, said utility spokesperson Kristin Carlson.

New England has in recent years rapidly ramped up its reliance on natural gas as a power and heating source, and some in the industry are seeking to still further increase its use.

Green Mountain Power’s disinterest in further wind energy ought to be understood in that context, Iarrapino said.

Green Mountain Power is owned by the largest natural gas distributor in Quebec, Gaz Métro, a $7 billion firm that owns more than 6,000 miles of gas pipeline. Gaz Métro also owns Vermont Gas Systems, the subsidiary currently working to complete a controversial 41-mile natural gas pipeline into Addison County.

“It’s important to keep that in mind when assessing Green Mountain Power’s treatment of independent renewable-energy producers,” Iarrapino said.

Because wind energy threatens to displace natural gas on New England’s power grid, Iarrapino said, natural gas companies naturally oppose the technology’s expansion.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration recently forecast that by 2022, wind power will be the second-cheapest form of new energy generation in the country, second only to geothermal.

Green Mountain Power President and CEO Mary Powell said in a statement: “To be clear, GMP is currently exceeding state energy goals, increasing renewable power, while keeping costs stable for customers. Vermont utilities, including GMP, joined together to make sure the developer was not able to get a price for power that is above market and that would have cost customers millions of additional dollars. GMP’s focus is doing what’s best for customers, and not every project is the right fit for our portfolio as we balance the need for clean, affordable and reliable power. The developer is raising factually incorrect points that distract from important questions about the project, the cost to customers and its impact on the grid. GMP has been a leader in developing cost-effective renewable energy sources.”

GMP has opposed other renewable energy projects in the past year, Iarrapino said, including solar projects in Barton, Highgate Center, Sheldon, Brandon and Randolph.

Green Mountain Power opposed those because their power would be too expensive, Carlson said at the time.

Although GMP has no plans to purchase more wind power, Carlson said on Friday that the utility would buy more if it were cheap enough.

Since New England states have all committed to reducing dependence on fossil fuels, Iarrapino said, Swanton Wind is “confident” of finding another buyer other than Green Mountain Power.

The federal program under which Swanton Wind sought to sell its power was established in the 1970s by the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act. That act was meant to encourage energy conservation and to spur energy production — particularly renewable energy — within the United States.

Known as PURPA, the act requires utilities under certain circumstances to purchase power from eligible generating facilities.

Swanton Wind sought to have GMP buy power from the planned wind farm under prices established through PURPA; however, the pricing regime Swanton Wind applied under expired in September, 2016.

Green Mountain Power fought that effort, saying that Swanton Wind filed its application too late.

The Public Service Board agreed, saying that the Swanton Wind application lacked key pieces when it was initially filed, and that the new PURPA pricing regime must apply.

Iarrapino attributed much of that delay to Swanton Wind’s efforts to respond to questions raised about the project, and to demonstrate the project’s environmental, health and economic benefits.

That new pricing regime, put in place by the state of Vermont over a period between February, 2015 and September, 2016, offers PURPA contracts that last only seven years, instead of the 20-year contracts that were available previously.

This shorter contract period significantly increases the risk that small, renewable-energy power producers are exposed to, Iarrapino said.

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