BRATTLEBORO -- The nation's second-largest wind power operator wants to be the first to develop a utility-scale wind project on national forest land in the Green Mountain State.
Spanish wind giant Iberdrola Renewables defended the project in federal court Wednesday.
Wind opponents have challenged the company's special use permit to build a 30 megawatt project in the Green Mountain National Forest.
The company in April 2009 received a certificate of public good to build 15 turbines on a ridge that divides Searsburg and Readsboro. It has also received a special use permit from the USDA Forest Service to develop the project on national forest lands.
Federal law aims to preserve the wilderness character of designated areas. One of those areas is the 5,000-acre George D. Aiken Wilderness, located about 1.5 miles to the west of the proposed project site.
Renewable energy use and development is one of the goals established in the 2006 Green Mountain National Forest plan prepared by the USDA Forest Service. The plan includes wind energy development projects.
The anti-wind group Vermonters for a Clean Environment sued the U.S. Forest Service in 2012 for permitting the company to build in the national forest. The organization says the Forest Service violated federal environmental law by not sufficiently studying the environmental impacts of the project.
Annette Smith, the group's executive director, said the project would set a "national precedent" because it would for the first time allow development on national forest in sensitive ecological areas.
Geoff Hand, an attorney representing Iberdrola's Deerfield Wind Project, said the project has been in development for more than a decade. Hand told the court that the project has "important public benefits" and it will "advance public policy goals" by bringing more renewable energy to Vermont.
Patrick Bernal, an attorney representing VCE, said the agency's environmental impact statement did not consider all the available project alternatives, such as other forms of energy generation and different locations. Instead, he said the agency limited its studies only to projects that were commercially viable.
The Forest Service said it began by looking at 37 possible wind sites in the Green Mountain National Forest. But due to wind resources, the ability to connect the power to the grid and the size of the area needed to make a project commercially feasible, the agency selected the Deerfield site.
"There was a proposal in mind," said Cynthia Huber, an attorney for the Forest Service. "You start with an idea and then you move from the idea."
Stephen Saltonstall, an attorney representing VCE, said the Forest Service did not sufficiently analyze the noise and aesthetic impacts of the project on the wilderness area.
He said there are more than 520 locations in the wilderness where the proposed turbines could be seen. An attorney for the Forest Service said Green Mountain Power's operational Searsburg wind farm on the east side of the mountain is already visible from the wilderness area.
The 11 turbines in Searsburg measure 190 feet tall; the Deerfield proposal would erect towers about 400 feet tall.
Saltonstall said the Forest Service also did not adequately model the noise impacts. The agency modeled the noise at the eastern border of the wilderness area - which is closest to the project site - and concluded the turbines would increase noise by about 7 decibels, about the same as the noise emitted by a refrigerator, an attorney said.
The noise and aesthetic impacts of the turbines would destroy the wilderness character of the forest area, Saltonstall said, and would violate the Wilderness Protection Act.
The Forest Service rejected those allegations. Officials from the federal agency said the topography and tree cover minimize the aesthetic and noise impacts. The Wilderness Protection Act, they argued, does not set high aesthetic standards.
Bernal said the agency also did not use recent data on bat populations in the area that could be killed in collisions with the turbines. Bat populations are already endangered due to the disease white-nose syndrome, he said, and the vulnerability of the bats should have been considered as part of the environmental assessment.
Huber argued that there is little habitat left for bats in the area and therefore the wind project would not affect bat populations.
Bernal said John Hecklau, the Forest Service consultant who wrote the study, had a conflict of interest. Hecklau was evaluating the aesthetics of Iberdrola's wind project in Groton, New Hampshire, at the same time he conducted the Green Mountain National Forest study. The Forest Service countered that Hecklau did not have a direct financial interest in manipulating the study.
U.S. District Judge Garvan Murtha heard the oral arguments Tuesday and his decision is pending.
Iberdrola does not have a buyer for Deerfield Wind's proposed power output. The company's CPG states it must sell a "significant portion of the wind farm's output to Vermont utilities at prices that are favorable relative to market purchases."