Commercial wind farm proposals in Vermont have been called both fitting and contrary to the Green Mountain State’s green philosophy.
Opponents worry about what wind turbines spinning on formerly pristine mountain ridges will mean for tourism, land values and animal habitats. Proponents say green energy is suitable for the state.
Both sides have plenty – but not a whole lot new – to talk about.
Six commercial wind farm proposals are slowly churning through regulatory processes around the state. Most are in the early stage of battling for public opinion before entering the Section 248 Certificate of Public Good review by the state Public Service Board.
# 26 turbines in the Sheffield Wind Power Project in Sheffield and Sutton.
# 12 to 26 turbines in the Lowell Wind Project in Lowell.
# Five turbines in the Equinox Wind Farm Repowering project on Little Equinox Mountain in Manchester.
# Up to 33 turbines in the Glebe Mountain Project in Londonderry.
# 20 to 30 turbines in the Deerfield Wind Project in Searsburg and Readsboro. This is an expansion to the existing 11-turbine Searsburg Wind Farm , Vermont’s only commercial wind farm and the largest in the New England.
# Four turbines in the East Mountain Demonstration Project in East Haven, which has made it nearly through the Section 248 process and could be permitted as soon as next month.
Potential additional turbines are being considered by the East Mountain project backers in another area.
Taken together, all the projects could mean 135 turbines spinning in the state. Renewable Energy Vermont has said about 150 turbines could generate 10 percent of the state’s current energy needs. The trade organization and advocate for the renewable energy industry calls that a reasonable expectation of how many turbines will ultimately be built in Vermont.
But power is only part of the equation in evaluating wind projects in Vermont. The larger question, which has generated vehement debate around the state, is whether generating 10 percent of the state’s power needs is worth scarring the state’s ridgelines.
Proponents passionately argue yes; opponents, just as adamantly, say no.
"It’s better than zero percent, and that’s what we have otherwise," said John Zimmerman of Vermont Environmental Research Associates, the Waterbury company working on enXco’s Vermont wind farm projects in Lowell and Searsburg.
"You’ve got to have something, and it’s unlikely you’re going to have one (power source) doing it all, in fact Vermont’s not that way at all," he said. "It’s a matter of where do you want to get your power from?"
"Any kilowatt you generate in the state is good," agreed Robert Ide, director of energy efficiency for the Vermont Department of Public Service.
The Public Service Department has supported the four-turbine East Haven demonstration project despite statements from Gov. James Douglas in favor of small, residential windmills over the larger commercial models.
Renewable energy advocates suggest the governor’s stance isn’t realistic. To generate the same power as just the Sheffield project could produce would take 16,800 small 10-kilowatt residential windmills in the state, said Andy Perchlik, executive director and co-founder of Renewable Energy Vermont.
At $20,000 a piece, small turbines are also exclusive to those who can afford them and therefore don’t address statewide energy needs, said Lawrence Mott, general manager of small windmill maker Earth Turbines Inc. of Hinesburg.
But at 80 to 100 feet in height, about the height of a good-sized pine tree, smaller turbines are more appealing to opponents, who worry how 350- or 400-foot commercial versions will look , especially on a prominent ridgeline.
They’re getting bigger
Wind turbine size has literally become a growing issue over the last couple of years. While the number of wind farms proposed in the state has remained stagnant , in part due to an Agency of Natural Resource decision to not allow the commercial enterprises on state land because of deed restrictions, causing some projects to be dropped and offsetting new ones being proposed , the turbines that have been proposed are getting larger.
Since 1.5-megawatt turbines were first proposed in Vermont by developers, 1.8-, 2- and even 2.5-megawatt turbines have hit the market.
"This process has now taken so long the larger-output machines have now been tested and are available," said Bob Charlebois, managing director at Catamount Energy Corp. in Rutland, the developer of the proposed Londonderry project.
"Two years ago, we couldn’t have considered a 2.5-megawatt machine," he said. "It wouldn’t have been available."
While the new turbines are taller, it will take fewer of them to reach 10 percent of the state’s energy needs.
Size aside, proponents argue that wind power fits the state’s land-use history.
"For some folks this is a natural kind of thing," said Tim Caffyn, project manager for UPC Wind Management, the Massachusetts company proposing the Sheffield and Sutton wind farm.
He notes Vermonters are known for harvesting natural resources through farming, forestry and maple syrup production. "And that’s what we’re trying to do, trying to harvest a natural resource for the state of Vermont."
Sees spin doctors
Bob Michaud, chairman of the Sutton Planning Commission, called Caffyn’s comments a "sales spin."
"People don’t want that. They’re concerned with their quality of life and people don’t think they’re really beneficial for the area. They would hurt the area economically," Michaud said of wind turbines spinning near Burke Mountain Resort ski area, second homes and restaurants.
"This is a tourism state. " This is really going to turn the state upside down here," said Michaud.
The Vermont Public Service Board will get to hear all the debate around the various projects and their sizes. Four projects- Sheffield, Equinox, Glebe and Deerfield – are expected to apply for Certificates of Public Good next month or early next year, or at least that’s what their developers are saying.
That many applications at once will put a strain on the Public Service Board, said board Clerk Susan Hudson. But with only one project currently before the board, Hudson said she wasn’t "dwelling" on what might come. The board will process the applications as it gets them, she said.
As for the Public Service Department, its review of individual projects is done by a consultant at the cost of the developer, Ide said.