Analysis: Wind's role in Vermont's energy future
Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part news analysis on wind power in Vermont.
The appetite for building wind projects in Vermont has tapered off in recent years.
A combination of factors -- the end of federal stimulus money, uncertain reauthorization of federal incentives, difficulties in connecting to the grid, competition with solar and local opposition -- have shelved at least two projects and left three others lying dormant.
But the industry might be poised to catch its second wind. Supporters and opponents agree that despite the recent timeout, wind power will likely remain a part of the region's renewable energy mix.
Wind opponents say Vermont's ridgelines -- where all the state's utility-scale projects are located -- are ecologically sensitive areas threatened by such development. Critics also cite the health and aesthetic impacts of windmills. And a few towns have taken positions against the building of commercial energy generation projects within their borders.
But Gov. Peter Shumlin has made it clear that his administration wants to fight climate change by harnessing all the available resources Vermont has to offer, including the wind. And public surveys indicate that, overall, Vermonters support building projects in-state.
Despite the general support though, the tension between local and state support is sending a mixed message to developers considering projects in Vermont.
Steve Terry is a retired employee and consultant for Green Mountain Power, the state's dominant electric utility that developed Vermont's largest wind farm in Lowell.
He said to move future projects forward, developers must spend more time working with local communities.
"And if you can't accept that, you had better find another place to do business," Terry said. "You just have to be ready to understand that that is one of the prices that you have to pay to do business in Vermont. You've got to be willing to explain to a lot of smart and sophisticated Vermonters why the project is in the general public good."
Projects inch forward
Developers are still scouting sites, testing for wind potential, and securing permits to build Vermont's next wind farm.
Spanish wind giant Iberdrola Renewables is proposing two projects in southern Vermont. The company has received a certificate of public good for its 30-megawatt Deerfield Wind project located on ridge between Searsburg and Readsboro, where it is proposing 15 turbines measuring about 400 feet tall, twice the size of Green Mountain Power's existing Searsburg project.
The company last week defended its project in federal court after wind opponents appealed its special use permit to build in the Green Mountain National Forest. The court had not made a decision by the time this story was published.
The anti-wind group Vermonters for a Clean Environment says the project will set a national precedent that will open up national forest land for commercial projects. VCE claims the U.S. Forest Service violated environmental law by inadequately studying the project and its alternatives. The group also says the project will damage nearby wilderness areas due to noise and visual impact.
Even with this case pending, the company says it would not begin construction until it finds a buyer for the power. Iberdrola's state permit requires it to sell most of its power to state utilities at a reasonable price.
The company is also measuring wind at a site in Windham County, but says it will need another year or more to analyze wind data before deciding whether to move forward.
Green Mountain Power is also considering more projects in Vermont. Asked whether the company plans to develop another wind project, Dorothy Schnure, a company spokeswoman, said GMP is considering all options.
"I wouldn't say no. We are constantly looking at different options," she said.
The company is experimenting with a smaller, 100 kilowatt installation that measures up to about 200 feet. The 3-megawatt Danish VESTA turbines on Lowell Mountain stand about 400-feet tall, as do many other utility-scale towers.
Renewable energy entrepreneur David Blittersdorf said there is a potential for new, mid-sized wind sites west of the Green Mountains on the "bumps" in the Champlain Valley, or in southern Vermont where projects are currently proposed.
"I'm playing a sort of waiting game," said Blittersdorf, president and CEO of AllEarth Renewables. "In 10 years, I'm sure I'm going to have some more community wind projects."
Blittersdorf developed the 10-megawatt Georgia Mountain Community Wind project completed in 2012.
Local reaction to wind
Jeff Wagner is president of Volkswind USA. The international wind development company has completed two projects in the U.S - and dozens internationally - and has six in the development phase in the U.S.
The company considered developing a wind project on Glebe Mountain in Londonderry and Windham in 2010. However, despite state policy supporting projects like his, Wagner said opposition led by the anti-wind groups made permitting the project "impossible."
"What we see in New England is a tension between overarching federal and state policies with local townships who sometimes get under the influence of well-funded opposition," he said.
But this could change.
"If the community and municipal authorities in that area seem to be showing renewed interest in the idea of wind development on Glebe Mountain, then we would again be interested," Wagner said.
Last month, the the developer of Seneca Mountain Wind project in the Northeast Kingdom announced it would cease development of its utility-scale wind project, citing opposition from the neighboring communities in the Unified Towns and Gores of Essex County as the reason. (It would have also cost tens of millions to connect this project to the rural electric grid.)
Project manager John Soininen in the announcement commended Vermont for its goal to source 90 percent of its energy from renewables by 2050. He said the Portsmouth, N.H.-based wind developer Eolian Renewable Energy would like to participate in this process, leaving open the possibility for future development plans in Vermont.
Since the first wave of development in the state, wind opponents have been focusing on the local level. On the whole, they say towns where projects are proposed stand in opposition.
And some town plans -- such as in Windham, where Iberdrola is proposing an up to 30-turbine project -- have codified a prohibition on commercial wind projects.
The town of Waitsfield, which has two proposed locations for wind on Northfield Ridge and the Green Mountain Range, in 2012 adopted an 18-page energy plan that prohibits any development above 1,700 feet above sea level.
The town's plan came after Massachusetts-based developer Citizens Energy showed an interest in the sites. Another developer out of Boston that developed the Sheffield Wind project, First Wind, has been asking landowners about possible sites near Moretown, according to the town energy committee.
First Wind spokesperson John LaMontagne said the company has no projects on the "front burner" in Vermont. However, he said developers often consider many sites before deciding to move forward on a project.
Karen Horn is a member of the Moretown energy committee. She said the town is in the process of writing a plan related to commercial wind development. She said the town is concerned about large-scale wind.
Horn is also director of public policy for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. She said many towns are just now developing these plans in response to the recent wind developments.
"We're kind of playing catch-up," she said.
While some towns, like Newark and Hardwick, have cautious plans related to wind, others, like Hyde Park, do not permit "large-scale commercial wind generation."
Nonetheless, Horn said towns have little say in how these projects are sited.
"The towns have been pretty much ignored in the Public Service Board process," she said about the Section 248 siting process for energy generation projects.
Lawmakers have attempted to change Vermont law so state regulators would have to consider town plans when deciding whether to approve such projects. But those attempts failed and might not return to the table as the two leading proponents -- Sens. Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington, and Peter Galbraith, D-Windham -- are not seeking re-election.
The Shumlin administration and renewable energy advocates opposed giving towns more say in the siting process.
Shumlin has repeatedly warned that in order to confront climate change, the state must harness all its resources -- forests, rivers, the sun and the wind - citing natural disasters like Tropical Storm Irene as the reason why Vermont should take action to cut its carbon footprint.
Chris Recchia is the commissioner for the Department of Public Service. He said ideally a well-sited project would gain a local community's support, but its not required as part of the state review process for energy projects.
"We don't go to the point where we feel like you have to ensure that everybody is in absolute support of an any project before it can happen because that is a very high hurdle," he said.
The administration acknowledges that there will be resistance to in-state generation, and set up the Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission in 2012 to find a solution, which some lawmakers and wind critics say was a toothless endeavor. None of the recommendations from the commission have become state policy.
Shumlin's steady push for renewable development is a significant change from the previous administration's position on wind. Former Gov. Jim Douglas was more sympathetic to community concerns, according to Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
"The statewide interest in renewable energy from wind outweighs the concerns from residents and local governments in the towns where the wind turbines will be placed," he said of Shumlin's view of energy projects.
Dean Corren, the Progressive candidate for lieutenant governor, agrees with the administration that the state needs to build more renewable power in state. But he said all energy systems have positive and negative impacts.
"We need utility-scale wind, but the state ought to be clear on the areas that will be off-limits to wind development," he said.
There is no consensus from communities on the noise impacts of wind turbines. Some residents say the noise does not bother them or they cannot hear the turbines. Others say it keeps them up at night and causes illness. Wind opponents point to noise variability based on location, weather conditions and wind speed.
After receiving complaints about noise emitted from turbines, the Vermont Public Service Board in 2013 opened an investigation to study the adequacy of its noise standard. During a workshop last month, experts debated the causal links between turbine noise and the anecdotal reports that this noise causes headaches, insomnia, and nausea.
Tomorrow: Policy changes make renewables more attractive; Is wind power right for Vermont?; Finding the right fit.
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