State officials have withdrawn some of their objections to a large wind project slated for the Northeast Kingdom after reductions in the scale of the project, but there is still a list of changes they would like to see before any turbines are installed in Sheffield or Sutton.
And the Division of Historic Preservation continues to object to the proposed project by UPC Vermont Wind because of its potential impact on Crystal Lake State Park, which is included on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We did not envision the first proposal as something that could work,” said David O’Brien, head of the Department of Public Service. “I think the revised filing is certainly responsive to concerns raised by the department and other parties.”
The department does not decide if projects get approval or not, but does try to make the projects that are approved better, O’Brien said.
After objections from the department, the Agency of Natural Resources and others, UPC reduced the size of the project by 10 turbines and dropped its expected production from 52 megawatts to 40 megawatts.
Project manager Matthew Kearns said his company is pleased with the improved reception the revised proposal has gotten.
“It’s a big improvement; the reaction has been very positive,” he said.
But he also warned that although the project is economically viable as it now stands, further reductions might change that.
“The project size is economic as it stands, it is sustainable,” he said.
The quasi-judicial Public Service Board will ultimately decide if the project gets approval, with testimony and advice from various quarters including other state agencies.
In testimony, Eric Gilbertson of the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation said the UPC project will have an adverse impact on the nearby state park and its historic bathhouse.
The installation of the turbines “would interfere with the public’s ability to appreciate and understand the setting of the Crystal Lake State Park. As such, the proposed project will have an undue adverse effect on historic resources,” testified Gilbertson, who relied on federal standards to make the determination.
As a likely witness in the matter Gilbertson declined to comment on the case.
“The division for historic preservation expert in this case, Eric Gilbertson, has examined the amended proposal and concluded the impact on Crystal Lake State Park is still unduly adverse,” said David Mace, spokesman for the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
The Public Service Department’s view of the project may have changed in certain key areas – such as whether it fits in with the development plan for the region – but that doesn’t mean UPC is on a fast-track to approval.
O’Brien said his department needs to be sure Vermont utilities will benefit from virtually any power project before they are approved, he said.
Before approval “a substantial amount of the project’s capacity must be committed to Vermont’s retail distribution utilities under long-term contracts with demonstrably beneficial rates,” according to department testimony.
One utility, Washington Electric Cooperative, already has an agreement to buy some power from the wind project.
According to testimony, WEC used money from a U.S. Department of Energy grant to help in pre-construction research and planning related to siting the project. WEC has options potentially allowing it to purchase up to four megawatts of power from the project.
The UPC project straddles two towns, Sheffield, which has supported the project, and Sutton, which has opposed it. Although the developers have proposed reducing the number of 420-foot wind towers in Sutton from six to two, department officials said they would like all of the turbines removed from Sutton.
In addition the department has a list of other conditions it would like satisfied before the project gains approval.
Among them are the establishment of a decommissioning fund, roadway permits and agreements with the state and local towns and letters from emergency service providers the project will not unduly burden them.
Concerns about the reduced-scale UPC project leading to more such projects remain among state officials.
“The department is concerned that once a single project is constructed that it will lower the bar for future expansions or for other projects in the immediate vicinity,” according to testimony on the new proposal filed with the Public Service Board. “The department does not believe this is a desirable outcome.”
Kearns said that through the hearings before the board, expected to start in late January, the work on the proposal will continue.
“I think we have answered the call to work on the issues that were creating some concerns,” he said.
“We are looking forward to the next step in the process,” he said.
O’Brien added that the position of Gov. James Douglas towards large-scale wind projects has not changed.
“The administration is certainly not excited about the industrialization of the ridgelines,” he said. “It’s something we are exceedingly cautions about. The ridgelines of Vermont have been specially protected for generations.”
By Louis Porter Vermont Press Bureau
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