BENNINGTON COUNTY – Wind turbines tend to divide people into two camps: those who support this alternative form of energy as the wave of the future and others who strictly oppose it on aesthetic grounds. Other issues that come into play are the environmental pros and cons that surround the issue. Less obvious are the economic impacts.
Several wind facility projects are proposed in Vermont and near-by Massachusetts.
Up to 30 wind turbines are proposed on ridges in Searsburg and Readsboro. Little Equinox Mountain in Manchester may see five 410-foot tall turbines. Up to 27 turbines are proposed for Glebe Mountain in Londonderry, East Haven may see four turbines and Sheffield’s Hardscrabble Mountain may be home to 27 turbines. In Massachusetts, 20 turbines are proposed for Florida and Monroe. Jiminy Peak Resort in Hancock, Mass., is planning on installing a $2.1 million turbine to power lifts and light buildings.
"There’s not a lot of history and that’s one of the things that confounds the issues," said Dave Lamont of the Vermont Department of Public Service about the issue of economic impact on towns.
According to the Department of Energy the 11 turbines operating in Searsburg make up the only operating commercial-scale facility in Vermont, and one of only two in New England. The other site is in Hull, Mass., where there is one 660-kilowatt turbine.
For towns where wind facility developments are proposed, the benefits of hosting a clean energy facility must be weighed with a myriad of other factors.
For many in the area, the fact that the state has only one operating commercial plant means a lack of experiential information that would define the issues surrounding wind facilities. Prominent on the minds of townspeople are the economic pros and cons of participating in America’s fastest growing alternative energy industry.
A major concern is that a wind facility will decrease property values in the town because people don’t want to see or hear turbines when sitting in their backyard.
A study conducted by a Danish independent research institute reported that the economic expenses in connection to the noise and visual effects from windmills was minimal.
The institute conducted a survey of 342 people living near wind turbines. The results showed that 13 percent of those living near the turbines said they were a nuisance.
Closer to home, the Renewable Energy Policy Project conducted a study of 10 wind facilities nationwide including the one in Searsburg. The study compared the values of properties near the turbines to similar properties farther away. According to a study, for nine of the 10 facilities examined, property values of homes within a five-mile radius of the wind facilities increased at a faster rate than comparable properties during the same time period.
Josie Kilbride has been Searsburg’s town clerk since 1989, eight years before the existing facility went online. She said the town had not seen a decrease in property values after the windmills were constructed.
There are around 90 full-time residents said Kilbride, and she estimated only about six households are within the viewshed of the turbines. She said she does not know of anyone selling their property because of an aversion to the windmills.
The tax rate in Searsburg has decreased as a result of the wind facility said Kilbride. The value of the facility, owned by Green Mountain Power Corporation, makes up one third of Searsburg’s grand list. She said Searsburg’s "gold town" status was not changed due to the wind plant and said the town is already home to another utility facility.
Some towns facing the prospect of hosting a wind facility are hoping to benefit from a decrease in electricity bills. In Searsburg electricity rates have not changed, said Kilbride. Lamont said only towns that are also served by the utility that owns the wind facility would see a decrease in electricity costs, though such a deal is not guaranteed.
Alternative energy has often been more expensive than traditional forms, but with rising fuel prices Lamont said this year is the first in which wind energy is less expensive than gasoline-fueled electricity. Another economic benefit to wind energy, said Lamont, is that prices are more stable than gasoline.
"The way electricity runs in the region is that the most expensive method shuts down first and therefore tends to lower prices," said Lamont. Lamont advocates wind energy in part to increase energy diversity which he says helps to stabilize and lower prices.
Some towns hope that locals will be employed for either construction or operating and maintenance phases of development. For Searsburg that was not the case, said Kilbride, who said only one Searsburg resident may have been involved in the project.
Electricity rates and local jobs are things towns may be able to negotiate with the developer, said Robert Ide of the Vermont Department of Public Service. He recently discussed economic issues of wind power developments with the select boards of Readsboro and Searsburg.
Ide said the state board that decides whether to grant or deny the developer a certificate of public good works closely with the hosting town and wants to see that there is a good relationship between the developer and the town. Because of this, Ide said local boards may be able to use their powers of negotiation to discuss other economic benefits such as allowing cell phone towers on the wind facility land.