State regulators on Wednesday approved the 16-turbine UPC Wind project to be built in the Northeast Kingdom town of Sheffield, although they also required a series of accommodations by the company before it can put up the project.
If built the project would be the first commercial wind power station in Vermont since the Searsburg facility was completed a decade ago.
The approval is significant not only for the power the project is expected to generate – the bulk of which would be sold to Vermont utilities – but also because of the hope it holds out to power companies and wind power developers that their projects may move forward.
Some neighbors and nearby landowners said they were disappointed in the board’s decision, and vowed that they would continue opposing the project. While the town of Sheffield supported the development of the project, those in nearby communities, including Sutton, had more reservations.
In its order the board noted that benefits of the project “include fuel diversity, energy independence, reduced air emissions, increased tax revenues and several other economic benefits.”
“However, these benefits do not come without burdens” the board continued. “Given their size and location the proposed wind turbines will be visible from many vantage points. In addition, the construction of 16 turbines on an undeveloped ridgeline would result in significant environmental impacts.”
Overall, the benefits to the state outweigh the cost, the three board members concluded.
The UPC project has been scaled back from its original design, but company officials have said it is still viable at its current size. Initially, the project was going to include turbines both in Sheffield and Sutton, but now all of the project’s 420-foot turbines – with a total capacity of 40 megawatts – will be in Sheffield, which was more welcoming to the idea than Sutton.
Originally, the project would have included 26 turbines, although it will now produce nearly the same amount of power because of changes in turbine design and layout.
“We commend the board for a very diligent effort and a very thoughtful effort,” said Matthew Kearns, director of project development in the Northeast for UPC. “I think the permit is an important indicator that the process can work and in fact it is a very rigorous and diligent. I think it made the project better. The process pushed us very hard.”
David O’Brien, commissioner of the Public Service Department, said there remain questions about wind power in the state.
“I think there is absolutely a future for renewable energy in Vermont,” he said. “How much of it will be wind is a different question.”
“There is a divide in the Northeast Kingdom over commercial wind,” he said. “I think you will find the governor and this administration will continue to be cautious about commercial-scale wind.”
In its approval the Public Service Board put several restrictions on the project designed to mitigate the impact of noise, traffic and other concerns.
The “visual impact” of the large turbines was the greatest concern of those surrounding the project, the board noted in its decision. However, the board decided that the benefit of the project – including power supply to Vermont users – outweighed those worries.
UPC is in discussions or has contracts to sell the electricity from the project – an estimated 115,000 megawatt hours a year – to Vermont utilities, including Washington Electric Cooperative, Central Vermont Public Service and Vermont Electric Cooperative.
When operating at peak performance, the Sheffield project would supply about 14 megawatts of electricity to Central Vermont Public Service, said Steve Costello, spokesman for the utility. A little more than a third of the power from the project would go to CVPS – which has a peak load of nearly 450 megawatts.
One of the advantages of buying the power from the UPC project is that, with the impending end of contracts with Hydro-Quebec and Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, it makes the electricity supply for the utility more diverse, Costello said. It will also mean that some of the electricity CVPS supplies to its ratepayers in the northeastern portion of the state will not have to be moved as far down power lines.
“The more distance you have to transmit power the more line losses there will be,” Costello said.
The sales agreements between UPC and the Vermont utilities that would buy its power is one of the areas in which the Public Service Board dictated requirements to the company.
Rather than tying the price of UPC’s power to a set percentage below the New England market for electricity, the company should enter contracts with the utilities that are more stable, according to the board. That is because one of the benefits of renewable power is that it is not dependent on fossil fuels, and the New England market price is based on the cost of natural gas, the board noted.
“UPC will have the opportunity to submit new contracts that include mechanisms providing greater price stability, or to show that the contracts as proposed provide the best possible arrangement,” the board wrote.
One of the conditions of the board’s approval was implementation of an agreement between UPC and the state’s Agency of Natural Resources.
That agreement appears to be unique in the country, and just might chart a new course of negotiations and collaboration between the agency and wind developers, said David Englander, environmental litigation attorney with the agency.
“We had concerns about potential impacts to birds and bats and potential indirect impacts to bears,” he said.
The agreement with UPC has several pieces. First of all, the company agreed to conserve 2,700 acres of nearby land to ensure bears have other habitat in the area. Secondly, the company agreed to shut down its turbines on 120 nights a year when bats are most likely to be flying through the area.
“The biggest bat kills have been during the fall migration,” Englander said.
The company also agreed to mortality studies to see how many birds are killed by the turbines.
In addition UPC did a lot of work studying and researching the use of the site by animals and birds early on, Englander said.
“Our biologists felt like, to the extent possible, we understood the nature of the use of the airspace” Englander said.
“I think this is a first in the nation agreement between an agency like ours and a petitioner,” Englander said. “I absolutely hope it is a model.”
The board required that UPC establish a fund for dismantling the project, limit noise from the turbines and mitigate the impact of traffic along with other conditions.
After another wind power project, proposed for East Haven, was turned down by the board in the summer of 2006, some renewable energy advocates and developers said it would be very difficult for any commercial wind project to be built in Vermont, in part because of the public opposition by Gov. James Douglas.
The UPC approval argues against that theory, some said.
“I think what it says is each project is going to be examined individually, and that is frankly how it should be,” Costello said.
“Those size [of] plants can be appropriately sited in Vermont,” said John Zimmerman, head of a Vermont wind power consulting group that has worked on several projects in the state, although not the UPC effort. “There are places they will have minimal impact on the human and animal environment.”
The approval also points out that – especially in New England – wind developers are becoming more careful about addressing some of the concerns about their projects.
“I think wind power developers and manufacturers, as they have moved into the Northeast U.S., have learned about the importance of paying close attention to things like potential wind impacts on people’s residences,” Zimmerman said. “As the industry moves into more populated areas like New England they are learning those are very important issues that must be paid attention to.”
The ruling by the Public Service Board does not sit well with everyone, especially those in the Northeast Kingdom who have fought against the UPC project because of its impact on ridgelines and views.
Ridge Protectors, a grass roots organization with several hundred donors, said in a statement that the board caved to the pressure to show that wind power is not dead in Vermont.
“Given the political pressure on the PSB to demonstrate that a wind project can be approved in Vermont, however, their decision did not come as a surprise,” the group said in its statement. The group of neighbors and landowners also vowed to ensure the conditions put on the project by the board are followed – and left open the possibility of an appeal.
“In the Northeast Kingdom we are sustained by the ridgelines and mountains around us. Because they are sacred to us we had no choice but to defend them,” the group said in its statement. “Any party can ask for reconsideration or clarification and an appeal of the PSB’s decision is also a possibility.”
Renewable energy advocates welcomed the approval.
“The PSB did an admirable job in weighing the many benefits that this wind farm will bring against its potential impacts, and they came to the correct conclusion that this project will serve the public good,” Andrew Perchlik of Renewable Energy Vermont said in a statement.
Kearns said that while some opposed the project, the town of Sheffield gave valuable support.
“We have seen great support from the town of Sheffield. Without them I don’t think this project would have been possible,” he said.
But there remains the question of “tax certainty” for wind projects, Kearns said. An effort was made in the Legislature this year to create a set tax rate for wind farms to encourage their development, although the bill containing it was vetoed and the provision did not make it into law.
He and other wind power developers will be watching closely next year to see what happens on that issue, Kearns said.
“We are really looking forward to seeing some progress on that,” he said. “It will certainly affect the kind of project it winds up being and perhaps the priority we put on the project.”
August 9, 2007
By Louis Porter, Vermont Press Bureau
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding