WAITSFIELD – Last month, at a meeting attended by about 40 residents of the Mad River Valley, a Boston-based energy company tried to see which way the wind blows.
Citizens Wind wants to install large turbines atop Northfield Ridge, one of two ranges that frame this idyllic resort community.
The proposal is exceedingly preliminary. Citizens Wind, owned by Citizens Energy, doesn’t even know whether the ridge, in Waitsfield, is a viable site for wind power. Before proceeding with the costly process of making that determination, however, Citizens wants to know whether it has a willing partner in Waitsfield.
“The greatest hurdle we have in the wind business is getting people to be able to be comfortable with it,” says Randy Male, a senior wind developer at Citizens Wind who heads up the company’s East Coast development activities. “We think it’s important to engage people early. If there really is a tremendous amount of vocal opposition, we’d like to be able to know that early.”
If the people of Waitsfield don’t want the turbines, Male says, then Citizens Wind doesn’t want Waitsfield. The sentiment is reminiscent of Green Mountain Power’s approach in Lowell, which, on Town Meeting Day, overwhelmingly approved the construction of a major wind installation atop ridges in that town.
Officials from Green Mountain Power began speaking with residents and elected officials in Lowell a year and a half before applying for the certificate of public good that is required to begin the project.
“We told the Lowell Selectboard: We will only build it if the town as a whole supports it,” says Dorothy Schnure, manager of corporate communications for Green Mountain Power. “If the town as a whole supports it, we’ll move forward. If the town does not, we will walk away. And we meant that.”
Will residents of the Mad River Valley – known for both its green-living ethos and its tourist-drawing beauty – respond similarly?
“That’s the $64 question,” says Steve Shea, chairman of the Waitsfield Planning Commission. “And there’s no clear answer now. We’re at the stage of seeing whether citizens want to do the due diligence to see if this is actually feasible, or whether citizens just don’t like the idea whether it’s feasible or not. And we don’t know the answer at the moment.”
Male says it’s too early to know precisely what the installation might look like, or even how many turbines, of what type, it would involve.
He says the turbines would have a capacity of either 1.5 megawatts or 3 megawatts each, which would mean tower heights of “400 feet-ish.” Citizens Wind would erect the towers on private land atop Northfield Ridge and deliver electricity to the grid via an existing transmission line nearby. According to an account in the Valley Reporter of the May 18 meeting, Male said the ridge could accommodate 15 to 24 turbines – enough to power several thousand homes.
“Northfield Ridge caught our eye for a couple reasons,” Male says. “The ridgeline appears to be rather constructible in that it’s a fairly straight ridge as opposed to other areas that are a bit more challenging to develop. And in looking at the transmission system, there appears to be transmission lines in the area we might be able to utilize.”
Male also says a “desktop analysis” suggested wind speeds on the ridge could support large-scale power generation.
“I’d characterize it as somewhat more than exploratory in that we’re in the stage when we’re waiting for the town of Waitsfield to give us an indication they would be receptive to at least exploring a project on that ridge,” Male says.
That indication would come in the form of a revision to the town’s existing ban on all development above 1,700 feet. The prohibition was added to the town plan in recent years after approval by a supermajority of residents.
“Townspeople basically are in favor of preserving the ridgeline and minimizing development up there,” Shea says. “Of course, the whole energy thing has changed somewhat since then and townspeople may be more willing to take anther look at that now.”
Another townwide vote, Shea says, suggests that wind energy might not conflict with residents’ desire to preserve Northfield Ridge.
“We did a survey as part of our town plan update last fall, and we asked the question about the potential of a wind farm on the Northfield Ridge,” Shea says. The survey occurred before Citizens Wind’s advance. “About two-thirds of the people who responded said they’re willing to think about it.”
Wind developers have had only limited success getting permission to build projects in Vermont, due in large part to opposition from well-organized opponents, who cite turbines’ alleged impacts on bats, birds and wildlife habitats. Some groups also say the sound created by turbine blades is harmful to human health.
Though he’s careful not to dismiss environmental concerns, Male says they’re often used to obscure fears about aesthetics.
“Every technology has its cost. The fact of the matter is that most folks opposed to a wind project because they think the sound is bothersome or that it kills bats really just don’t want to see them,” Male says. “We respect that people appreciate their view-shed, and don’t want to minimize that. But if that’s really the issue, let’s not suggest it’s something else.”
Looking at the ridge
Brian Shupe, the energy program co-director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, says some residents will always oppose wind. But the environmental toll of oil dependency, he says, could strengthen support in the mainstream.
“There’s a strong recognition that business as usual is over,” says Shupe. “The Gulf of Mexico is America’s Chernobyl.”
Shupe, who lives in Waitsfield and is a former chairman of the town’s Development Review Board, attended the informational meeting in May. Just because people support wind energy, he says, doesn’t mean Northfield Ridge is an appropriate place for it.
“It all comes down to site-specific details – what are the environmental impacts on any given location, and can they be mitigated?” Shupe says. “And, if they can’t, then it’s not an appropriate location.”
Environmental impacts aside, Shupe says, Citizens Wind likely will encounter irreconcilable opposition to the prospect of 400-foot towers on an unblemished ridge.
“There’s the environmental impacts, and then there’s the possible aesthetic impacts,” he says. “One way to view wind is as part of Vermont’s 21st-century working landscape. But the Northfield range in particular is very prominent from most of the valley. Careful siting maybe could address those impacts and let it blend into the landscape. But I think poor siting could be a potentially big problem.”
Doug Turner’s dairy farm, on Route 100 in the northern part of Waitsfield, rests in the foreground of Northfield Ridge. Some things are more important, he says, than a pristine rural vista.
“I highly favor wind power and alternate forms of energy, and I think it’s time as a state, as a community and as a country we embrace the fact that we’re going to have to sacrifice a little view to offset the use of oil for power,” Turner says. “I know it may not be ideal and it’s not what everybody wants to look at. But at some point practicality has to take over, and we can’t just continue to complain and turn things down.”
Susan Klein, head of the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the proposal has split the business community.
“I’m finding this is one of those issues that people are either really, really in favor of or really, really against,” she says. “There’s not a lot in the middle.”
Klein thinks a large-scale wind operation can coexist with a thriving tourism economy.
“We could look at wind turbines not with dread and disdain but with pride – that we’re doing our part to become more self-sustaining, whether it’s in our food sources or our energy sources,” Klein says. “That’s really important to people here in the Mad River Valley, to be good stewards.”
The project could offer fiscal benefits as well, in the form of new property tax revenue from the infrastructure and in low-cost power deals wind developers often strike with affected communities.
Citizens Wind operates two wind facilities, a 34.5-megawatt plant in New York and a 198-megawatt facility in Ontario. Male says the company has 10 other projects in various stages of development.
Shea says the planning commission has not met since the information meeting. Over its next few meetings, he says, the commission will consider the Citizens Wind request. To erect towers to measure wind speeds, the company needs an exemption to the 1,700-foot ban. Shea says the commission would almost certainly put the proposal to a townwide referendum before altering the town plan.
Male says Citizens Wind will meet regularly with people in Waitsfield and the surrounding communities to address any concerns or questions.
Schnure says Green Mountain Power, which operates the state’s only large-scale wind farm, in Searsburg, and recently applied for state approval to build in Lowell, has established a helpful benchmark for other would-be developers.
“My advice, and what we learned, is that it takes time, because it is a major change in the community,” she says. “Some people love it off the bat, some people hate it off the bat. But most people need the opportunity to learn about it, and it’s our job to help them do that.”
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