This is a story about two men who forged a friendship at a nuclear power plant protest and then went on to collaborate on several sustainable energy projects, including three of the best known modern hydro projects in Vermont, over a 30-year period.
Recently, the two separately embarked on wind projects in New York and Vermont. The fate of these projects couldn’t be more different: The New York wind turbines will be built this summer, while the East Haven Wind Farm in the Northeast Kingdom is effectively dead.
The story of how one wind farm evolved and the other imploded is a story about how two neighboring states regulate this relatively new alternative energy industry (at least in the United States). It’s also a story about the difference between the way Vermonters and New Yorkers feel about their landscapes.
John Warshow and Matthew Rubin met in the late 1970s at a protest against the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire. Although Warshow can’t remember all the details, the story that the two men first met each other as they were chained to a fence outside the power plant has become something of a legend among energy advocates and utility executives in Vermont.
Both longtime residents of Vermont, the two began work-ing together and developed three of the best-known new or refurbished hydro-electric projects in Vermont ““ one in East Montpelier, one in Springfield and one in Winooski.
It took them seven frustrating years to get permits for the Winooski project, Rubin said.
Then, a few years ago, Rubin turned his attention to a small commercial wind project on a mountaintop in East Haven. Warshow declined to join him, instead starting work on a wind project on the other side of Lake Champlain, in New York state. Now, five years later, Rubin’s four-turbine, six-megawatt project has been effectively stopped with a denial from the Vermont Public Service Board. Meanwhile, Warshow’s project in New York has been approved for between 10 to 13 turbines and 20 megawatts in a span of less than two years.
There are significant differences between the two projects. For one thing, because of geography, most New York wind projects are built on farm land that is relatively flat, while those in Vermont tend to be proposed for high, generally wild ridgelines.
But one of the biggest differences between the two simply has to do with the way the two states approach wind power projects.
Advocates, renewable power developers and experts say that New York has much less stringent regulatory requirements for wind projects than Vermont does.
In addition, New York state contributes money for renewable power projects. This gives wind power developers a leg up in competition with fossil-fuel power generators.
Rubin said unlike Vermont, New York has actively encouraged wind power projects.
Vermont regulators and state officials admit that it may be easier to develop some wind projects in New York. That’s in part because renewable power project developers here are required to go through the same rigorous standards as any other developers in the state, regulators said.
Warshow said his decision to work in New York was due in part to the difficulty they had with one of their hydro projects in Vermont.
“Having been through that I had just sort of had enough,” he said. “It seemed like the grass was a little greener on the other side of the lake.”
Complaints about the difficulty of getting permits in Vermont are not unique to renewable energy developers; “traditional” industries have complained about the regulatory process for years.
“I understand the permitting process is difficult. It is difficult for anyone who wants to develop anything in Vermont,” said Rich Smith, deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Service. Although his agency, which helps regulate the production and distribution of electricity in Vermont, supported Rubin’s project, the Agency of Natural Resources opposed the idea, in part because of its potential negative impact on birds and bats.
Vermont’s tradition of protecting the environment is deeply ingrained, and it applies to renewable energy projects as well as other proposals, Smith pointed out. Opponents of commercial wind projects say the impact on scenery and wild lands is too great.
“We have Act 250, we have the 248 process (to license power-generating facilities) for the reason that we so value the landscape,” he said. “New York has billboards; we don’t.”
“We have a statewide approval process,” Smith said. “I don’t think that is something the administration or the Legislature would take away.”
John Sayles of the Agency of Natural Resources, which opposed the East Haven project in large part because of its potential impact on birds and bats, said it is not fair to compare different projects and different states’ regulatory systems because each is unique.
As for whether it is too difficult to get permits for wind projects in Vermont, he said that is a policy decision for lawmakers and the governor.
“We are an executive branch agency. We enforce the laws that are on the books,” he said. “If there should be a different standard for wind or any specific energy project “¦ that is something for the Legislature and the governor to work out.”
“This could be a paper box manufacturing company” that wanted to put a tower with spinning blades on it on top of a mountain, Sayles said. “Our review would be exactly the same.”
Warshow’s project in Beekmantown, near Plattsburgh, is just under 20 megawatts in size. In New York, local zoning boards gave him the go ahead; he didn’t need to seek approval from a statewide authority like Vermont’s Public Service Board.
That was part of the reason he choose to develop a wind power project across Lake Champlain, Warshow said.
“We decided it would be better to try and do this in New York,” he said.
Part of the reason the project won approval, along with several others being constructed or permitted nearby, is that they are not sited on ridgelines. The portion of New York state where Warshow is installing the wind turbines has high, windy, flat plateaus instead of valleys and hills. It is the development of ridgeline projects in Vermont that have been controversial, prompting Gov. James Douglas to oppose large-scale turbine arrays.
“If we were to put an industrial turbine on every (suitable) location it doesn’t add up to enough energy to justify impairment of our ridgelines,” Douglas has said. “We need to maintain our tourist economy and our quality of life.”
Recently Douglas said that although he supports some smaller scale projects, he personally opposes large-scale wind development in Vermont. He said the state agencies that regulate and review such projects have free rein to grant permits based on the laws and criteria in place.
However, advocates for large-scale wind power counter that Douglas’ distaste for such projects does matter. For one thing, the Public Service Department, which advocates for ratepayers in the state, is an executive branch agency that implements the governor’s policies.
But a more significant reason for the greater success wind developers seem to have in New York is that the state is grappling with much more immediate energy needs ““ and has done what it can to ease the permitting of such projects, Warshow said.
The power demand in The Empire State dwarfs the amount of electricity used in tiny Vermont.
And so when it came to generating more power through wind, “it was unequivocal where New York stood,” Warshow said.
New York has taken clear steps to encourage wind development. The state has performed a statewide study of how much electricity from wind turbines could be fed into the power grid without massive retooling, Warshow said. And it has mapped what renewable energy developers call “the wind resource” across the state.
The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (http://www.nyserda.org/) has a program to collect and sell “green tags” or credits from renewable power projects. In addition, the state conducted a statewide impact study of programs requiring renewable power, and found it was an economic benefit.
Smaller projects get expedited permitting in New York, and such projects can connect to the power grid through their local utilities, instead of the having to go through the time-consuming process of obtaining permission to connect to the power grid as larger electricity generators must. For smaller projects in New York, local utilities control access to power lines rather than large organizations that control the regional power grid. Getting approval from those larger organizations or from the grid operator can take a significant amount of time and effort, power producers said.
As a developer of wind projects in New York, “you are basically left to address your specific site issues,” Warshow said.
That means that while a wind project developer must still address local concerns about noise, view impacts or other concerns, the overreaching question is whether the state sees wind power as beneficial to the public.
In Vermont, developers have to prove that their projects will not adversely affect their neighbors; they also have to prove that their projects are a public benefit.
New York state officials have already decided that wind projects benefit the public in most cases.
“That is not to say all projects get approved, some get turned down,” he added. But “it’s a lot simpler process.”
Rubin said that his six megawatt project, with only four turbines, was economically viable only because of the high ““ and windy ““ elevation of the East Haven site, a relatively small project in terms of commercial power generation.
Indeed, defining what is “large scale” or “small scale” is often difficult or impossible, Rubin said.
Opponents of “large-scale” wind projects often call for “Vermont-scale” development instead. That idea is a myth, Rubin said.
“There is no such thing as Vermont scale; it is simply empty rhetoric,” he said. “The amount of power you get is related solely to the swept area.”
That means that the size of the area covered by the spinning blades of a wind turbine are directly related to how much electricity is made ““ and it can take 1,000 small turbines or more to equal the power of one large one, Rubin said.
“Gov. (George) Pataki and now Gov. (Eliot) Spitzer want it. In Vermont, Gov. Douglas doesn’t. It’s that simple,” Rubin said.
The state’s required studies of bird and bat populations and the impact of the project on them after it was built were unreasonably onerous, given the potential threat from the turbines, Rubin said.
“The objective was, I feel, to kill the project,” he said. “One house cat kills six times as many birds as a wind turbine.”
There is a need for renewable energy projects in Vermont ““ and wind power is the best and most economically viable option, Rubin said.
Other sources, like hydro, wood-chip fired plants or cow power, are good, but have more limited economic and power producing potential than wind does, Rubin and others said.
“The problem is not going to be solved by replacing incandescent lights with compact fluorescents,” he said.
And attitudes in Vermont toward wind projects seem to be changing, Rubin said. Meanwhile he and his partner, David Rapaport, have no other plans for the abandoned military site in East Haven
“From my point of view it is simply a matter of time,” he said. “We are just relaxing and paying our taxes.”
New York state has nearly 400 megawatts of wind power online, or soon to be operational. As much as 6,000 megawatts have been in the approval pipeline at some stage.
Vermont has only one six-megawatt project operation, Searsburg, one of the first wind projects in the Northeast. Several other projects are under consideration or are in the process of applying for permission to build from the state.
It is difficult to site and develop wind power projects in the Northeast, said John Saintcross. Saintcross worked for Green Mountain Power when the utility developed Searsburg, and now works for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (http://www.nyserda.org/). That is the group charged with aiding in the development of renewable power and efficiency programs in New York, and helping local towns make sure they know how to go about permitting and considering proposed projects.
In part, the fact that New York state’s projects tend not to be on ridgelines, but on land which has been farmed or used for years and in economically depressed counties can help make some projects easier to site.
“People who go to Vermont are trying to escape a lot of manmade stuff. It’s a very different land ethic.”
“Things are held sacred in Vermont that aren’t held sacred in New York,” he added.
A wind farm can contribute significant revenues to a small, rural and poor town and to individual landowners who might otherwise be forced to sell, Saintcross said.
And in New York, the towns primarily make the decisions ““ with NYSERDA and state agencies helping or voicing their opinions on the projects.
“They have traded off the aesthetic impact in exchange for the payment in lieu of taxes,” where projects are approved, Saintcross said. “At the end of the day they have to decide if they want to see these machines or not.”
After New York’s renewable portfolio standard law went into effect, creating a market for “green credits” from renewable power projects, there was a flood of applications for wind farms, Saintcross said.
The stark differences in the approach to and number of wind projects in the two states reflects the differences in electricity demand each state faces.
New York uses about 34 times as much power as Vermont, and the amount of electricity used in the state during the high demand “peaks” grew between 2005 and 2006 by 1,864 megawatts ““ nearly twice Vermont’s peak load.
And while Vermont gets the bulk of its power from renewable sources ““ if the massive Hydro-Quebec dam system is included ““ New York is striving to reach 25 percent renewable power over the next few years.
Finally, while only about 5 percent of Vermont’s power comes from fossil fuels, half of New York’s does.
“New York has a real issue, an immediate issue, and they have determined how to address it,” Warshow said. “We don’t have the same urgency you see in New York.”
But Vermonters shouldn’t be self-satisfied about their situation, advocates warn. The contracts for power from the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant and Hydro-Quebec both expire or begin to be phased out in the next decade.
“There are compelling economic reasons to encourage wind power in New York,” Rubin said. “The same reasons exist in Vermont.”
“Vermont has had a great tradition of protecting the environment and being a great steward of the environment,” Warshow said. “However we are at the end of the energy pipeline.”
“We are at war over energy,” he added. “I have two teenage sons so I think about that all the time.
“I can’t see huge wind farms being built here. It’s just not going to happen,” he said. “We are never going to get 100 percent of our electricity from wind. But it is an important piece of the puzzle.”
By Louis Porter Vermont Press Bureau
25 February 2007
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