The question of who should reap the gains of wind power was at the very center of a decision last week to allow a 16-turbine wind farm to go forward in Sheffield.
Last week the Public Service Board (PSB) granted a certificate of public good to permit a Massachusetts company, UPC, to build a 40-magawatt wind farm on ridge lines within the small Caledonia County town. Once up and running, the project will power 15,000 homes, according to the board’s findings.
Approval, however, came with one iron-clad condition.
“For the project to promote the general good, we must include a requirement that UPC seek to negotiate stably priced contracts with Vermont utilities that would benefit Vermont ratepayers,” said the board in an order that runs to more than 100 pages.
Altogether, there were 32 conditions attached to the order. For the town of Barton, the most notable may be one that requires UPC to draw up a transportation plan.
“We adopt a condition that UPC take all commercially reasonable efforts to avoid roadways in Barton Village,” states the order.
That may leave a lot to be desired among town and village officials who fought company plans to transport the massive towers in piecemeal fashion through the center of town.
UPC said Tuesday it intends to work closely with village and town officials in developing a transportation plan.
“We will put a plan together with their cooperation,” promised Matt Kearn, the company’s operational manger for the Sheffield project.
The board may have recognized that its order would be less than satisfying as it counseled Barton residents to buck up.
“Today’s Order acknowledges that, as in the construction of other large-scale projects that benefit the public good as a whole, some areas will bear more of a burden than others, even while receiving fewer of the project’s benefits.”
But where the board may fall short in easing the burdens on Barton’s downtown traffic patterns, its order clearly seeks reassurances that the project will benefit Vermonters where it counts the most – their wallet.
In its review of the economic benefits the project will bring to the state – increased tax revenues for both the state and Sheffield, new jobs, and lease land payments – the board said they did not go far enough.
“Unfortunately, the pricing terms of the Vermont utilities’ power purchases do not capture one of the major economic advantages of renewable energy: the free, and thus stable, cost of the fuel.”
To offset this shortcoming, the board said it wants stable price contracts between UPC and its utilities. Not contracts, in other words, that are tied to regional market prices, “which are both highly volatile and expected to increase over time.”
The board’s requirement is not expected to delay or derail the project, but it may cause UPC to get its priorities in order. Ideally the company would like to get construction under way by fall. But realistically, the digging may have to wait until next summer.
In an interview Tuesday, Mr. Kearns said construction will not start until the stable price contracts required by the board have been negotiated with the three Vermont utilities seeking to buy power from UPC.
Nor, he said, did the board’s requirement comes as a surprise to the company. The issue of long-term power contracts was on the table early in the process, he said, with the company’s blessing.
“We prefer long-term, but that’s not where our clients want to go,” he said.
The requirement or condition will cause UPC to go back and study its options. Help to bring UPC and Vermont utilities closer together could come from the Department of Public Service. An early critic of the Sheffield project, the department, which serves as the public’s watchdog in such matters, pushed for fixed contracts when UPC brought its petition for a certificate of public good before the board.
“We raised the issue in our filings,” said Rob Ide, who is the department’s efficiency director.
Since the fuel to turn the 420-foot wind turbines is free, the only cost is the construction. And that, said Mr. Ide, should be taken into account when bills go out to the ratepayers.
Mr. Ide called the Sheffield wind farm “a significant, significant construction project,” and one that required the kind of regulating found in the board’s conditions.
Still pending, and waiting in the wings at this moment, are the project’s opponents, which include the citizens’ group known as the Ridge Protectors and the Town of Sutton.
The deadline to ask the board to reconsider its decision will arrive on Saturday, ten days after the order was released. But opponents may be looking to take a bigger step by filing an appeal with the Vermont Supreme Court.
In an interview Tuesday night, Paul Brouha of Sutton said there was little interest among opponents to give the board a chance to refine its decision. Rather, he said, opponents are looking to bring issues before the state Supreme Court that have “a chance to change the outcome.”
The group has 30 days to file an appeal. One of those issue that may come up for appeal, noted Mr. Brouha, is the board’s finding that the project would not interfere with the region’s orderly growth.
To give their appeal greater weight before the high court, opponents are hoping to enlist the aid of surrounding towns like Westmore and Barton.
In earlier hearings before the board, Barton dragged its feet and did not become involved until late in the process. Consequently Town Attorney Bill May could only argue about how the project’s transportation routes would adversely affect trade and tourism in Barton.
Mr. May said Tuesday that the board’s decision had not convinced him that UPC had chosen the best routes.
“It’s yet to be proven how successful transport of huge piecemeal towers can progress through Barton,” he said.
Before the board, the attorney had argued that since Sheffield would gain the most from the project, it should be the town to endure most of the adverse impacts.
But he said in light of last week’s decision, that argument didn’t fly.
What did seem certain at the week’s end was the re-emergence of wind as a renewable source of energy for Vermont.
While he was cautious to note that the Sheffield project had many advantages – like an existing road and a nearby transmission line – Mr. Kearns said the board’s decision showed there is no longer a need to demonstrate that wind has a role to play in the renewable energy picture.
Today, he said, the question is “not whether, but where.”
But neither has the board’s decision thrown Vermont ridge lines open to wind developers.
“Anyone who is trying to read too much into this decision is only fooling themselves,” said Mr. Ide.
Decisions on wind farms will be decided “case by case,” he said.
by Paul Lefebvre
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