Last year, Dave Lamont, director of planning at Vermont’s Department of Public Service, seemed on the verge of giving the Department’s green light to the proposed Kingdom Community Wind project in Lowell. His pre-filed testimony, submitted to the Public Service Board in October, reads like an argument for the 63-megawatt, 20- or 21-turbine project that Green Mountain Power (GMP) wants to build on the ridgeline of Lowell Mountain.
Yet he did not conclude, for the Department, that the project is in the public good. He cited other issues, in particular the undue, adverse aesthetic impact that the Department’s aesthetics expert testified the project would have. Lamont also suggested that GMP could find less costly ways to transmit the electricity from the site.
In January, Lamont filed new testimony, with a different conclusion: “[T]he Department has concluded that the benefits outweigh the costs and the project should proceed.”
After Lamont was cross examined last week, on the final day of three weeks of Public Service Board hearings, various parties to the case charged that the change in the department’s position demonstrated inappropriate political pressure from the new, pro-wind administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin.
“It’s really politics that’s driving this, and that’s unfortunate,” said Brice Simon, attorney for the Lowell Mountains Group, which opposes the project. Jared Margolis, representing the towns of Albany and Craftsbury, which are concerned about noise implications of the project, was harsher: “This is all political BS. He’s changing his opinion to give in to political pressure. That’s fine—the governor, it’s his agency. He can put political pressure on; he can tell them what he wants to do. The problem is, it came too late, and so they had to change. ANR and DPS both changed mid-stride.”
However, Lamont’s initial testimony left plenty of room for the department to change its position and determine that the wind farm is in the public good, in light of new information and/or a revised plan for the turbines or their operation. The way he ended up balancing the many public benefits of the project against its impacts on individuals in the area shows the special way Vermont law treats wind projects: the benefits of renewable electricity can outweigh the sort of impacts that would cause a veto for a gas pipeline or a condominium.
GMP and their partner Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC) need the electricity from the project, Lamont testified, and it’s both an economic benefit to Vermont and a cost-effective way to meet the legislature’s goals for energy supplies in the state, which call for 20 percent of electricity used in Vermont to be generated by renewable or efficient in-state sources by 2017 and 25 percent of the state’s energy from in-state renewables by 2025.
Lamont addressed a common misconception of wind opponents, explaining that turbines do reduce climate gas emissions, even though they are not baseload power. Any time the wind turbines generate electricity, he said, they result in reduced output at another electrical generating facility somewhere in New England, under the operating rules of the ISO New England grid organization. Most of the time, they’re causing a natural gas plant, which emits carbon dioxide, to throttle down.
Moreover, Lamont testified, “this project is among the most competitively priced renewable resources” in the state, which is good for rate payers. One of the main functions of the Department of Public Service is to advocate for rate payers.
In his January testimony, Lamont re-visited the Legislature’s goals for increased renewable energy generation in the state. Wind is the least-cost, utility scale renewable resource available, he argues, and “by its nature must be sited in visually prominent areas.” Since legislators set strong goals for renewables, Lamont infers that they “made at least some judgments regarding the impacts of renewable technologies and found them acceptable given the perceived benefits” they bring. That inference lays the basis for approving a project despite some objections to its impacts.
Lamont also commented on the strong preference by the general public for renewable energy, an apparent reference to the Department’s 2007 outreach project, Vermont’s Energy Future. The project identified particularly strong preferences among Vermonters for wind energy. In regional workshops, over 500 Vermonters rated wind as the highest future generation priority. Participants were asked to rate generating sources as a threat to Vermont’s scenic beauty, and they rated a wind farm like the one at Lowell quite low (3 on a scale of 1 to 9). A weekend-long gathering of a random sample of more than 150 Vermonters considered energy issues in more depth. At the end of the weekend, 90 percent of participants supported seeing a wind farm built in a place visible from their home—and 74 percent strongly supported it.
Lamont acknowledged in his new testimony that “the Department’s aesthetics consultant has determined that the project will be shocking and offensive to a limited, but significant number of residents as well as recreational and other users of the area.” He pointed out, however, that board precedent allows projects of this sort to go forward if the right balance is struck between renewable energy goals and aesthetic impacts.
The numbers of people who may be adversely affected by views of the turbines depends on how they are considered. GMP’s aesthetics consultant, David Raphael, considered whether people could see the turbines from their homes, and came up with one or three residences that would be affected. The Department of Public Service’s consultant, Mark Kane, acknowledged that the project has low visibility from homes themselves, but counted up to 120 residences where people could see the turbines while going about their daily lives, including coming and going from the residence.
From some roads and trails, the turbines can also be seen. The Green Mountain Club has argued that the turbines, and particularly the lights at night, can take away from the wilderness experience that Long Trail hikers are looking for.
The Public Service Board is being asked to balance things like visual impacts from people’s driveways and from the Long Trail, plus sound impacts, against enough renewable, in-state electricity to supply 20,000 homes. Lamont pointed to the precedent of the Board’s 2007 decision on the four 1.5 megawatt turbines proposed in East Haven. The board denied the project a permit, but in doing so, it noted that the turbines “would not have an unacceptable impact on the conserved Champion Lands,” even though they would be “shocking and offensive to some of the public users of the Champion Lands” (italics in original).
Margolis, attorney for Albany and Craftsbury, argues that the cases are too dissimilar. The four-turbine East Haven project is much smaller than the 20- or 21-turbine Lowell project, and the conserved Champion Lands host recreational users, not people who live there year-round.
Margolis demands far more precision than Lamont was willing or able to give on how to calculate the balance. Margolis would like to see the economic benefits weighed against monetized measures of aesthetic harm. Reductions in tourism, if they occurred and could be measured, could be translated into dollar amounts. However, both the accuracy and the legitimacy of turning changes in scenery for residents into dollar values are highly controversial.
The Board does not appear to have performed a mathematical balancing act in the East Haven case, and neither did Lamont. He told Margolis, “Well, this wasn’t a spreadsheet analysis. This was a subjective analysis.”
Lowell Mountains Group attorney Simon doesn’t accept that strong support by Vermonters for wind is good enough reason to issue a permit for this project, when his clients bear the brunt of its effects. “You can’t just wave the magic policy wand and make a project that’s unacceptable suddenly acceptable,” he argues. “It doesn’t mean it’s now in scale with its surroundings—it’s not. It doesn’t mean it’s no longer shocking and offensive—it is. All it means is that you’re going to say, well, even though it’s shocking and offensive, we like it a lot because we can say it’s renewable energy.”
What about benefits from the turbines other than renewable electricity?
The possibility of favorable aesthetic impacts from the turbines came up surprisingly little in the written testimony and the hearings. Tom Kavett, who evaluated economic impacts, speculated that there might be some tourists who came to the area to see the turbines. Many wind supporters say they find the sight of spinning wind turbines to be beautiful. Since participants in Vermont’s Energy Future found a low threat to the scenic landscape from wind turbines, and 74 percent expressed a strong desire to see wind turbines from their homes, it’s likely this is a widespread opinion in the state. This may be true even in Lowell itself, where 75 percent of voters approved the project.
In nearby Westfield, Jack and Ann Lazor of Butterworks Farm are betting that a wind turbine will help sell their yogurt, which is distributed throughout Vermont and New England, and even into the mid-Atlantic states. Their maple yogurt container sports a drawing of a wind turbine, with the proud claim, “We are a wind-powered dairy farm.” From the drawing, there’s no way to tell how tall the turbine is or how it fits into the landscape. Ann Lazor says it’s nothing like the turbines with 250-foot towers proposed for Lowell Mountain. Their 35 kW Vestas turbine sits atop a 75-foot tower at their farm. Even so, it shaves off a third off their dairy’s 6,000 kWh/month consumption. They get occasional farm visitors who want to look at the turbine, she says, but generally there has been “not much response” to either the turbine itself in the landscape or the picture on the yogurt container.
Both Kavett and Lowell Select Board member Alden Warner have speculated the project could lead to rising property values in Lowell—though not because people will pay more to live closer to turbines. Kavett found that national data show no effect on real estate prices in areas where projects of this magnitude have gone in. However, the over $400,000 in annual payments that Green Mountain Power has agreed to make to the Town of Lowell will reduce property taxes so significantly that the land value may rise.
If there’s a balance in the Lowell project between the renewable electricity desires of a state and the impacts on a small number of people, what if the electricity produced cannot be considered renewable after all? No one disputes that wind is a renewable resource, but what if the renewable attributes are sold out of state? Lamont was one of a number of witnesses asked about whether the market for Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) undermines the claim of the turbines to be renewable energy.
Neighboring states require their utilities to produce a certain percentage of their electricity from renewables. The utilities can either install the wind turbines or solar arrays themselves or buy RECs from someone who is generating electricity that way. Because of Vermont’s energy laws, RECs are of no value to utilities in the state. Green Mountain Power plans to sell the RECs out of state and use the proceeds to lower costs to ratepayers.
Project skeptics have argued that selling the RECs means that someone can keep a coal- or gas-fired plant open somewhere else. The REC sale prevents the building of renewable plants in other states, according to this argument. Margolis raised questions about the RECs with Lamont, who looked at the big picture, saying, “You’re still avoiding the same amount of carbon.” Lamont also argued that selling the RECs indirectly leads to higher goals for renewable energy. He said that putting more RECs on the market drives down their price, and when policy makers see that the price of RECs is low, they are increasingly willing to require utilities to use more renewables.
At least two rounds of legal briefs are the next steps in the Kingdom Community Wind case, before the Board issues its final order. Most people at the hearings seem to expect the Board to approve the project, and they are jockeying for the most favorable conditions—or setting up a possible appeal to the Supreme Court.
- Public Service Board: David Lamont, PSB written testimony, Oct. 22, 2010
- David Lamont, PSB written testimony, Jan. 10, 2011
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