In a political climate charged with heightened anxiety over global warming, hearings got under way Monday on the project to erect wind turbines on the ridge lines of Sheffield.
Massachusetts company UPC Wind Partners is seeking through its Vermont subsidiary a certificate of public good from the Public Service Board (PSB) to build what would be the first industrial wind farm in the Northeast Kingdom.
The plan calls for 16 turbines to be mounted on towers, which will reach a height of 420 feet when the blade is in a vertical position, according to testimony from a panel of three company vice presidents.
Wind towers on Vermont ridge lines have mushroomed into a long-standing controversy, and opponents may have received a boost in a ruling handed down by the board Monday, prior to the opening of testimony.
The town of Barton, which was late in entering the fray, received permission to provide testimony on the company’s plan to use town highways during the construction phase of the project. That testimony will be provided later in the proceedings by town lister Gary Marcotte, who is expected to discuss the impact of the plan on town services and its roadways.
The town’s success in winning a toehold at the hearing was tempered, however, by a second ruling rejecting a motion to enlarge Barton’s role to provide testimony on the project’s impact on economics and aesthetics; impacts that largely focus on the state park at Crystal Lake and its surroundings.
Board Chairman James Volk said the town has no basis for such a request, but noted it could raise economic and orderly development issues within its testimony on roads and services.
Essentially, the town got a split decision from the board that will allow limited participation in the hearing.
“We’re better off than we were yesterday,” noted Barton attorney William May after the rulings were announced.
Barton’s motion to expand its role in the hearings stemmed from UPC’s decision to amend its original plans. Briefly, that amendment pared a 26-tower project down to 16, and proposed to used Barton’s roadways – most noticeably the Duck Pond Road – to access the project’s construction site. Those changes will likely result in a second round of hearings, in addition to the ones that started this week and are scheduled to end in the second week in February.
Unlike the hearings last year to put four demonstration wind towers on East Mountain in East Haven, early arguments this time around suggest that noise and the project’s impact on economic and regional growth will be the key issues. For unlike the East Haven project, which was denied a certificate of public good (CPG), the Sheffield project has nearby homeowners and a private school for neighbors. And not all are friendly.
One of the unknowns facing the hearings is whether Karen Fitzhugh, the headmistress of the King George School in Sutton, will be allowed to testify. Her public comments at local hearings warned that noise from a wind farm in the school’s backyard, so to speak, would cause the doors to close at a school that teaches students with behavior problems. Her fears quietly found an ally in Rob Ide, who serves as the director of energy efficiency for the Department of Public Service.
But, when Mr. Ide incorporated those fears in pre-filed testimony against the project, the board ruled his comments out of order, saying they were the product of hearsay. Testimony on the future of the school may surface in the days ahead. The board has given parties in the hearings until Friday to file briefs on whether Ms. Fitzhugh should be allowed to testify.
As a Sutton homeowner whose property abuts the Sheffield project, Don Gregory has been awarded party status in the hearings. His pre-filed testimony warning that noise generated by the turbines could cause the King George School to close was also scratched by the board because it, too, was based on hearsay.
But the noise issue quickly surfaced during the first day of the hearings during testimony on the company’s new wind farm in Mars Hill, Maine, where roughly 20 out of 28 turbines are on line.
David Cowan, whose resumÃ© identifies him as vice president, environmental affairs, with UPC Wind Management, LLC, in Newton, Massachusetts, acknowledged under cross-examination that noise complaints have been lodged with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and reported in the Bangor Daily News.
Attorney Barclay Johnson, representing both the King George School and the Ridge Protectors, wanted the newspaper’s account of the complaints entered into the record. After a short deliberation among the board’s three members and its two attorneys, the request was denied on grounds that newspapers have no standings in technical hearings.
Situated in Aroostook County, Mars Hill is a small town with a population of just under 1,500, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. A recent neighborhood profile offered by Sperling’s Bestplaces on its web site says the town’s per-capita income is just over $15,000.
Citizen complaints to Maine officials allege that noise from the turbines exceeded permit limits. An officer with the Maine Department for Environmental Protection confirmed Tuesday that four noise complaints about the turbines at Mars Hill were being investigated by his office.
“We’ve just started to put together a device to measure what is happening at the towers with what is covered in the permit,” said Nick Archer, regional director of the department’s northern office in Presque Isle.
Mr. Archer noted that the wind project is located in a rural residential area. And he emphasized that the company is being cooperative and working with his office.
Test results on noise levels are not expected until the middle of the summer.
Before the board Monday, Mr. Johnson further noted that the company had published assurances on its web page that the turbines would produce only background noise that sounded like wind in the trees.
According to Mr. Cowan, that slogan went online before the company decided to site some turbines at the bottom of the mountain where the project is being constructed.
“It would be ridiculous to say you wouldn’t hear turbines when there are turbines at the bottom of the mountain,” he said, noting the site at Mars Hill was unique.
The line of inquery was picked up later by attorney Daniel Hershenson, who is representing the town of Sutton.
“Does the company have a practice of making a web site for public relations?” he asked, when told the slogan was only intended to simplify complex technical information.
Vice president Scott Rowland, who oversees the project’s construction, said that comparing Sheffield to Mars Hill is like comparing oranges to apples.
Unlike Sutton, where the landscape is characterized by a series of rolling hills, he said, Mars Hill is a mountain surrounded by flat terrain. That’s why, unlike Sheffield, he added, turbines at Mars Hill could be sited at the bottom of the mountain and produce electricity.
The Sheffield project would be sited on ridge lines ranging in elevation from 2,150 to 2,497 feet. Its annual energy production is estimated at 111,900 megawatt-hours, or enough to power 195,000 homes. The company plans to use 2.5-megawatt Clipper turbines, a change from the 2-megawatt Gamesa turbines it proposed in its original petition. That change, one attorney suggested Monday, could lead to more noise.
Although eight Clipper turbines are being set up in Buffalo, New York, none has gone on line yet. And Mr. Hershenson suggested to the panel that there were noise problems associated with the Clippers during a testing period in Montana.
Mr. Cowan said those problems had been mitigated, and a company expert has said in pre-filed testimony that even in a worst-case scenario, noise won’t be problem.
“The day-night noise levels produced by the wind farm at the closest homes are similar to average sound levels in rural and wilderness areas,” said Christopher Bajdek, a consultant in noise and vibration from Burlington, Massachusetts.
Dueling testimony over the level of noise the turbines may generate is scheduled to take place Friday, February 2, when each side puts on its own noise experts.
According to testimony Monday, UPC expects to have 100 percent of its Sheffield wind power sold to Vermont utilities by March. Washington Electric Co-op of Montpelier will take six megawatts of power – the first two megawatts to be sold at a discount; the remaining four at market price. Another customer named in testimony was Vermont Electric Co-op in Johnson, which has entered into a 20-year contact with UPC to buy power at market prices less discount.
How the power is to be sold and who will reap the benefits was one of the pressing concerns Mr. Ide raised in his pre-filed testimony.
“The Department does not believe this project will meet the public good standard unless a substantial amount of the project’s capacity is committed to Vermont’s retail distribution utilities under long-term contracts with demonstrably beneficial rates, terms, and conditions, preferably at stable rates.”
In an interview earlier this month before the hearings got under way, Mr. Ide vigorously denied he was under any pressure from the Douglas administration to kill the project. The Governor has taken, he said, “a very, very hands-off approach when it comes to our review.”
Only the company’s vice presidents were on the stand Monday. And by the day’s end, they found themselves fending off allegations that UPC is a company that does not comply with its permits. Earlier in the hearing, violations at the company’s wind farm in Hawaii were alluded to by the opposition.
When the opportunity came around, UPC attorney Andrew Raubvogel – whose firm of Shems Dunkiel Kassel & Saunders represented East Haven Windfarm before the PSB roughly a year ago – asked the panel of vice presidents to describe the violations.
Mr. Rowland, who repeatedly took the lead in presenting testimony, said a violation issued by Hawaii’s Department of Health in August 2006 was eventually dismissed. However, the company settled another by paying between $14,000 and $16,000 in fines and costs for cutting a road that exceeded the width allowed in its permit.
The hearing’s tenor may have turned on Mr. Rowland, however, when he attempted to soften the violation by implying the state bureaucracy had been over-zealous in its enforcement. His comments tweaked the ire of board member David Coen.
“Remember,” he said. “You’re in front of this agency.”
Concerns about the project’s impact on the King George School are expected to come later in the testimony when Universal Health Services, which owns the school, and the town of Sutton along with the Ridge Protectors, put their experts on the stand.
Mr. Ide, who pre-filed testimony on behalf of the Department of Public Service, is scheduled to testify on the last day of the hearing. Up to now, it appears the department may have had a role in nudging UPC to amend its petition, not once but twice – the latest reflected in the company’s move to shift its project entirely within the town limits of Sheffield, whose citizens voted late in 2005 to support the project.
The department has wavered in its support of the project – initially opposing it, and then warming to it on condition that UPC build its wind farm only in the town that wants it.
Yet, in testimony submitted in December 2006, Mr. Ide still appeared to be smarting over the board’s ruling that his earlier testimony that the project could cause the school to close was based on hearsay, and would not be accepted as evidence.
“Representatives of the school have continued to make statements in opposition to the project similar to those I relied on in my direct testimony,” he said in testimony recorded on December 11. “As a result, I continue to have concerns but understand that they will not be considered in this proceeding.”
But by next week, those concerns could be coming in as direct testimony if the board decides to hear testimony from the school’s headmistress.
by Paul Lefebvre
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding