Selectmen organized a nonbinding vote at the town hall on Dec. 1 to find out whether there are more supporters or opponents among residents, creating an upsurge of vigorous campaigning by those against the wind developers. No organized effort by town supporters appears to have been waged, except one organized by a paid public relations firm hired by UPC Wind Management, the developer. UPC Wind hired Spike Advertising of Burlington to set up an information hotline, organize supporters under the name "Friends of Sheffield Wind Farm" and create an advertising blitz in the local newspaper touting the benefits of wind.
UPC is partnering with Washington Electric Co-op of East Montpelier in a proposal to build a 52-megawatt utility using 26 nearly 400-foot-tall wind turbines on mountain ridgelines in Sheffield and Sutton, a rural area north of Lyndonville. UPC has already invested $1.2 million in the project, including an $850,000 grant from the co-op originating from the U.S. Department of Energy.
The plant will generate 145 million kilowatt-hours per year, or enough to power 15,000 to 20,000 households. The utility aims to sell clean renewable energy to 10,000 co-op customers and Vermont Electric Cooperative and Burlington Electric Department.
UPC representatives say the wind farm is nicely situated because an existing VELCO electric line runs through the area.
While residents are getting involved in a war of opinion, it is hard to say whether or how much their opinion matters in the approval process.
According to Rob Ide, energy efficiency director with the Department of Public Service and former senator from Caledonia-Orange district, the public’s opinion is just one factor in a long laundry list of factors used by the Public Service Board to decide whether to issue a certificate of public good. When asked if he had a personal opinion supporting or opposing the project, he said "no."
He referred a reporter to the Public Service Board to further discuss how much public opinion matters. James Volz, formerly of the Department of Public Service and now chairman of the Public Service Board, would not take a reporter’s call; saying through a spokeswoman that his speaking to a reporter would be "inappropriate."
According to the Web site for the Public Service Board, major factors for determining whether the board would approve a utility include looking at whether it fulfills the state’s need for electricity, whether it would adversely affect system stability and reliability; whether the project would result in an economic benefit to the state and its residents; whether the project would have an adverse affect on esthetics, historic sites, air and water purity, natural environment and the public health and safety.
UPC does not plan to file for its certificate of public need until late December or early January.
Since UPC publicly proposed the project in June, townspeople have become sharply divided over the issue. Opponents have said they fear tourism would be threatened, because turbines would be visible from popular travel destinations, including Burke Mountain Ski Area, the Willoughby Gap and the summer vacation community of Greensboro. The project would be most prominently visible from Sutton, but 19 turbines would be seen from Lyndonville.
According to UPC’s preliminary plans, six turbines would be placed on Hardscrabble Mountain, 14 on Granby Mountain – both in Sheffield — and six on Norris Mountain in Sutton. Supporters say the project would provide much needed electricity to Vermonters during a time when contracts with other sources, including Hydro Quebec and Yankee Nuclear Power, are disappearing.
Opponents have been more visible than supporters and have placed campaign signs reading "Save our Ridgelines Learn the facts" in Sheffield, Sutton, Burke, Kirby and other towns. They also gave out anti-wind farm balloons and bumper stickers at the Caledonia County Fair, and organized a group called the "Ridge Protectors" made up of about 30 to 50 members from several different Northeast Kingdom towns who travel far and wide to voice opposition.
"Real Vermonters Can’t be bought. Go Away Big Wind. Last one out turn out the lights," is posted on the side of a farm stand in the center of Sheffield, across from the town hall.
Ridge Protectors claim big wind developments would hurt the local economy, erode property values and harm the eco-system. Many people say the mountains are sacred and should not be sullied by turbines.
UPC says wildlife acclimates easily to wind turbines, and is conducting numerous studies to ensure no undue adverse effects on the natural environment. Paul Gaynor, president of UPC, said the company has experience building in wilderness areas, citing its first U.S. project in Maui, Hawaii.
"It is true we are building our first project in U.S. in Maui, (Hawaii) on state conservation land, where there are endangered species (and) endangered plants," Gaynor said, adding that the company are almost finished with building the road on a virgin forest site located on West Maui Mountains.
Many Northeast Kingdom residents are participating in the process. At the Sutton presentation on Nov. 23, 55 people braved a snowstorm on rural back roads. About 11 residents and seven non-residents spoke, all except one opposed the project.
One issue concerning those living in Sheffield is construction traffic during the roughly six- to nine-month building phase. But UPC officials said they are working with the Agency of Transportation to bypass Route 122 and bring construction traffic directly on to Berry Hill Road using an Interstate 91 emergency bypass. This would avoid excessive travel on the main drag through town and appease many residents’ fears.