When the state Public Service Board granted permission this month for 16 big wind turbines atop a ridge in Sheffield, the three regulators did more than approve Vermont’s first commercial wind development in 10 years.
They also dispelled some developers’ fear that no mountaintop project involving 400-foot-tall structures could ever win a permit.
Most important, experts said last week, the board’s 119-page decision in the case of UPC Vermont Wind gave wind developers a road map through the long, hilly terrain of Vermont’s review process.
“They very carefully and transparently sketched out a map as to what standards would have to be met to get a permit,” said Stephen Terry, a consultant to Green Mountain Power Corp., the Colchester electric utility. “In the end the board sent a strong message that, if it’s done right, wind energy is a public good for Vermont.”
Among the guideposts in the Aug. 8 decision, he and others said: an emphasis on winning local support, on selling electricity to Vermont utilities at a stable price and on thoroughly studying – and mitigating – the turbines’ environmental impact.
“The order sets a really high bar for developers to meet, but it lays out all the hoops you need to jump through,” said James Moore, clean-energy advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
The decision came as a relief to Moore and other renewable-energy advocates.
Thirteen months ago, the PSB rejected the first wind energy application in a decade, for four turbines in East Haven. A second rejection might have persuaded wind developers to abandon Vermont for more welcoming states.
Instead, they said, the decision is likely to encourage four or five developers already studying wind sites in Vermont, from the hills of Readsboro on the Massachusetts border to Lowell Mountain, not far from Canada.
Adaptability key to success
UPC Vermont Wind, a subsidiary of a Massachusetts wind company, originally proposed an $80 million, 26-turbine project in Sheffield and Sutton, two communities in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. From first studies to issued permit took three years and several million dollars of preparation.
UPC project manager Matt Kearns said, permit in hand, the company hopes to begin construction soon and have the rotor blades turning in Sheffield by late 2008.
Along the way, the company scaled back and redesigned the project. It agreed with the state Agency of Natural Resources to protect 2,700 acres of surrounding bear habitat and to study bird deaths once the turbine blades are turning. The company also agreed to stop the blades up to 120 nights a year to protect migrating bats.
UPC’s willingness to adapt to local and state concerns, observers said, certainly helped it succeed at the PSB.
That lesson has not been lost on other developers.
“This decision says if you develop responsibly, in coordination with communities, landowners and the state, you can succeed,” said Brad King, project manager for Noble Environmental Power, a Connecticut company considering a 40-to 60-megawatt wind development outside Rutland.
Two UPC strategies were key to winning its permit:
Local support. UPC dropped 10 of its 26 proposed turbines when voters in Sutton overwhelmingly opposed them. The company won a vote in Sheffield and the enthusiastic support of town leaders. The PSB’s decision noted Sheffield’s endorsement and said opposition to commercial-scale wind development in Sutton’s town plan “is not controlling of development within the region or, particularly, in other towns.”
Carrying out thorough studies of a project’s impact on the environment – wetlands, animals, birds, bats and the like – accompanied by generous mitigation measures. The PSB found UPC’s protection of 2,700 acres of bear habitat to be an example of “outstanding mitigation.” And the board pointedly contrasted UPC’s cooperation with the refusal of the failed East Haven project to carry out bird and bat studies.
A question of price
In addition, for the first time in a wind energy case, the PSB adopted a new financial expectation – a stable, long-term price to Vermont utilities for the megawatts produced by the wind.
“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 fuel,” the board wrote in its decision.
Central Vermont Public Service Corp., for example, has been negotiating to buy about 35 percent of the Sheffield project’s output at a price linked to the rising and falling of the New England market price of energy. But, the PSB noted, that market price is driven by the price of natural gas to fuel southern New England power plants. Because wind is free, there’s no reason to link the price of Sheffield’s output to the general market, the board found.
The board directed UPC and the utilities back to the negotiating table to try to agree on a stable, long-term price.
“We conclude that the general good will not be promoted unless we condition our approval on the requirement that UPC make further efforts to enter into stably priced contracts with the Vermont utilities,” the board wrote.
If the two sides cannot reach agreement, they must report to the board, which could drop that condition – or withdraw the permit.
A ‘disaster’ for beauty?
Embedded in the dense text of the UPC decision are two additional messages, bad news for those, including Gov. Jim Douglas, who oppose development of Vermont mountaintops for wind power.
First, the PSB made clear – as it did in the East Haven case, even as it rejected the project – that wind power has a place in Vermont.
“The benefits include fuel diversity, energy independence, reduced air emissions, increased tax revenues and several other economic benefits,” the board said in the opening paragraph of its decision.
Second, the board continued to set a high bar for opponents who argue that wind towers so degrade the beauty of Vermont that they should be disallowed. This aesthetic argument has been at the core of opposition in the East Haven and Sheffield projects.
In both cases, the PSB acknowledged the harmful effects of wind towers on the view. The Sheffield project will be visible on an otherwise undeveloped ridgeline seen from a popular state park, Crystal Lake. The East Haven towers were surrounded by the wilds of the former Champion Paper Co. land.
Nevertheless, the board found in both cases that the degradation of the view was not shocking enough to deny a permit.
The remote settings of the two projects played into the findings of the board, which noted that distance softens the towers’ visual impact.
“Both those sites are very rural and quite distant from any public place,” noted Rob Ide of the state Department of Public Service. “That is going to be one of the balancing criteria in future cases – how close the individual turbines are to significant public investments, places where large groups of people congregate and react to the impact on the view.”
Opponents fear scenic beauty won’t count in any future case.
“Statewide, I think this decision is a disaster,” said Greg Bryant of Sheffield, a member of Ridge Protectors, a local opposition group. “With a stroke of the pen, they have erased 100 years of protection of our ridgelines and opened them to communications towers, cell towers, any kind of development. Virtually no place will be immune.”
A risky business
Vermont is unlikely to be blanketed with wind-driven turbines, wind developers and consultants said last week. Most mountains aren’t suitable because roads and transmission lines are too distant from the ridgetop.
“And it’s not so much the physical availability of the land,” said John Zimmerman, a principal of Vermont Environmental Research Associates, a Waterbury company that works with wind developers. “It is important how much the local people – the society – want to see wind turbines. That is a much larger regulating factor.”
Already one proposed wind project, on Glebe Mountain in Londonderry, has been dropped in the face of vociferous local opposition.
Moore, the VPIRG advocate, and Andrew Perchlik at the Renewable Energy Vermont advocacy group say wind development faces another challenge.
UPC won a permit, but one that came with 32 conditions after many years and large expense. That’s too long, too expensive, too arduous, the advocates said, and is likely to encourage big projects built by out-of-state companies. Local entrepreneurs and Vermont towns interested in a little energy independence might be shut out, they said.
“A community isn’t going to be able to afford three years and $3 million in studies in hopes of getting a permit,” Perchlik said. “There are large corporations that will take that risk, but not many local Vermonters.”
By Candace Page
Free Press Staff Writer
19 August 2007
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