Retired Vermont dairy farmer Don Nelson says he has a simple “smell test” for the local wind energy project being promoted by a utility owned by Montreal-based Gaz Métro.
It’s based on the premise that the natural beauty of Vermont is considered so valuable the state doesn’t allow advertising billboards on its highways. Weigh that against the project proposed by Green Mountain Power that would blast rock and bulldoze forest on the state’s famed mountain ridges to install wind turbines that will be far more visible than billboards.
“To destroy a ridgeline that has been there 450 million years and put up 450-foot-high towers on top of that ridgeline and then to think that that is not going to have an adverse effect on the esthetics? I don’t understand that thinking,” Nelson said during an interview this week.
“It doesn’t pass the smell test.”
GMP’s $160-million Kingdom Community Wind project, centred in Lowell, would up to 21 turbines installed along a stretch of mountain ridgeline directly behind Nelson’s farm.
It is the largest wind project proposed for Vermont’s ridgelines and to say that it has raised a stink in the region that proudly calls itself the Northeast Kingdom is an understatement.
Last Aug. 13, the Nelson family’s barn burst into flames and burned to the ground. It could have been Friday-the-13th bad luck because Vermont barns are sometimes consumed by fire.
But the Nelsons believe it was arson linked to their vocal opposition of the Lowell project.
State investigators tagged the cause of the fire “undetermined,” and as there was no loss of life or bodily injury, moved on to more pressing matters.
But the controversy over ridgeline development and the origins of the widely reported Nelson fire linger.
“I would suggest there is that much division in the surrounding communities about this project – who it will impact and who it won’t and where the money will go – that I think that some people can be driven to extreme measures,” said Lukas Snelling, spokesperson for Energize Vermont, which opposes utility-scale wind developments.
The Lowell project is in a populated area where some people will see financial benefits from it but all will have their property values and quality of life downgraded as a result of the omnipresent turbines, Snelling said.
“You are probably looking at 300 folks whose lives will dramatically change,” he said.
That GMP is owned by Quebec-based Gaz Métro has hardened the positions of those opposed to the Lowell project, according to Snelling and others interviewed this week.
“If they were being asked to sacrifice for the benefit of other Vermonters, that is a different question than being asked to sacrifice for the benefit of foreign investors,” Snelling said.
Richard Pion, the top elected official in the town of Lowell, figures the wind-energy project is the region’s most controversial issue in 30 years.
Voter turnout was extraordinary at a town meeting last year when it was decided – 75 per cent in favour – to support the project that will see Lowell’s property tax revenue jump by $400,000 to $535,000 per year for 25 years.
The project won Lowell’s support “because it’s going to give us some tax relief, for one thing,” Pion, chair of the Lowell Selectboard, said.
While the ownership of GMP has been an issue – chiefly for the project’s opponents – most people recognize the GMP is overseen by Vermont regulators, he said.
There is no denying that the wind turbines will have a visual impact, but those who favour the project think the need for renewable energy overrides that, said Pilon, who will be able to see three turbines from his home.
And the project has the support of several environmental groups, including the Conservation Law Foundation, Pilon added.
Ben Luce, assistant professor of physics, sustainability studies at Lyndon State College, contends that wind is not the form of renewable energy best suited to Vermont.
“It is a minor renewable energy resource but one with a very, very high environmental and social price tag,” Luce said.
The cost of solar generation is dropping rapidly and technology is such that solar generation would have a smaller footprint in Vermont.
Rather than devastate mountaintop ecosystems and Vermont’s tourism industry, the state should import more hydroelectricity from Hydro-Québec for the next five to 10 years and “and then make a major transition to more locally-generated solar power as the costs come down,” Luce said
If the GMP project goes ahead, Luce added, decision-makers will be viewed as having “destroyed one of the beautiful pristine areas of Vermont … for no good reason at a time when a better alternative was just about to come into reach.”
The future of Vermont’s Yankee nuclear plant is uncertain. GMP has decided to significantly reduce the amount of electricity it purchases from the plant and replace it with renewable energy, utility spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said.
The Lowell project is in line with Vermont’s goal of 20 per cent renewable energy by 2020 and offers “the best way to get stably-priced renewable power for Vermonters,” she said. With a capacity of up to 63 megawatts, it would provide enough electricity to supply the annual needs of about 20,000 Vermont households, she said.
The project, which is eligible for a federal tax credit, would cost “in the range of 10 cents per kWh.”
But to be eligible for the tax credit – of about 2.5 cents per kWh – the project has to be up and running by the end of 2012.
“We are on a tight timeline,” Schnure said.
Gaz Métro, whose executives are on GMP’s parent board, would earn a nine-per-cent return on its investment in the project, she said.
But its economic value will also be enjoyed by Vermont towns other than Lowell.
The utility has created a “good neighbour fund” worth about $150,000 annually over 10 years, that would provide economic value to some neighbouring towns, she said
The Vermont Public Service Board, which could put conditions on the project, is expected by render its ruling by mid-May.
‘AN INDIRECT GIFT’ TO GREEN MOUNTAIN POWER AND GAZ MÉTRO
Hydro-Québec’s recently renewed contract with Vermont provides “an indirect gift” to Green Mountain Power and parent Gaz Métro, a Quebec energy specialist says.
And the combination of a 26-year contract and low rates point to it being a politically motivated deal, said Pierre-Olivier Pineau, an energy specialist at the HEC Montreal business school.
“Vermont currently is the only state that does recognize large hydro as renewable electricity,” Pineau said.
Hydro-Québec’s U.S. export strategy is to sell power on the spot market because of the high profit potential, he said.
But the provincial government has been pushing for U.S. recognition of large-scale hydroelectric projects as green.
This month, the Vermont Public Service Board approved the energy contract between Hydro-Québec and 20 utilities.
In the first year of the contract – which begins Nov. 1, 2012 – the utilities will pay $58.07 U.S. per megawatt-hour or 5.8 cents per kw/hr.
“That is very cheap electricity when you consider New England and its alternative sources of supply,” Pineau said.
Green Mountain Power, the state’s second largest utility, now gets 114 megawatts of the 310 sold to Vermont by Hydro-Québec, a GMP spokesperson said.
The proportion going to GMP in the new 225 MW contract will be similar, Dorothy Schnure said.
The contract includes a pricesmoothing mechanism and an agreement whereby Hydro-Québec and the Vermont utilities would share proceeds from renewable energy credits.
The cost of the power is expected to climb in subsequent years, Schnure said.
A spokesperson for Hydro-Québec has previously described the contract as a “win-win” vehicle.
The cost to Quebecers for incoming Hydro-Québec projects will be above six cents per kw/hr.
The most recent call for tender for windpower by Hydro-Québec was pegged at $13.3 cents per kw/hr, including transportation costs, while the cost for the controversial Romaine River dam complex ranges from 6.5 cents to about nine cents.
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