MONTPELIER – In an effort to identify sites in Vermont that might be appropriate for wind turbines – and sites that might not be – the Shumlin administration is embarking on an 18-month project to map the state’s natural resources and wind resources.
The effort will be led by the Agency of Natural Resources, which last month received a $100,000 grant from the Clean Energy Development Fund for the project. The fund is administered by the state and uses money from the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant to subsidize renewable energy and efficiency projects.
But the project has skeptics who question its value and whether a state agency should be using money from the Clean Energy Development Fund for something that doesn’t lead directly to renewable energy projects.
Rep. Tony Klein, who chairs the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said the project also means the state will spend money doing work that has traditionally been done by private developers.
“It’s up to a private developer to see if a site is appropriate,” Klein said.
The resource mapping project stems from developers’ desire for more information that could guide projects, according to Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.
“That’s what started us down this path,” Markowitz said.
The mapping project will rely mostly on existing data. The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department – which is part of ANR – will create a map showing sensitive, important ecosystems that should be considered for conservation. The map will show things like bear habitat, wetlands and endangered species that could make putting wind turbines or solar panels there difficult.
A developer could then overlay the natural resources map with a map showing places that have wind resources, according to Markowitz.
This will help developers see areas with sensitive wildlife or waterways and allow them to choose other places where they can more easily get a permit.
“It’ll make it less expensive for developers, and make it, I believe, more likely that they’ll succeed, because they’ll make better choices up front,” Markowitz said.
Martha Staskus, vice president of Northeast Wind in Waterbury, is concerned the project could eliminate sites using data that only skims the surface.
“If the mapping exercise only identifies there’s a cluster of beech trees, does that automatically take potential sites off the table for wind projects?” she wondered.
Markowitz said that’s not the case.
The maps are not meant to serve as a “red light, green light” that determines where developments could go, Markowitz said.
“But what you will be able to say is: ‘Wow. If I went here I’d have to deal with an awful lot of issues, but if went here I’d have it easier,’” Markowitz said.
Shumlin has said he is committed to developing wind power in Vermont.
Earlier this year, Shumlin announced his administration’s support for a controversial large-scale wind project under development in Lowell. Shumlin’s support marked a departure from his predecessor, Gov. James Douglas, who opposed large-scale wind projects on Vermont’s ridgelines.
Klein, however, thinks the Clean Energy Development Fund money would be “better spent elsewhere, developing small renewable energy projects.”
It is rare for the Clean Energy Development Fund to award a grant for a planning project rather than one that leads directly to new energy generation or efficiency.
Sam Swanson, who co-chairs the fund’s board, said it has only happened once before and acknowledged there was some hesitation to use the fund’s dwindling money to map resources.
But he said Markowitz made a strong case.
“The secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources appeared and said, ‘This is something I really need to site wind effectively and this will help us work with developers,’” Swanson said. “We felt it was a decision that wasn’t hard to make.”
Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment – a group that opposes large-scale wind projects – said that because the maps will rely mostly on existing information, it may not have much value to her group.
“It will tell us what we know,” she said.
Vermonters for a Clean Environment opposes large-scale wind projects, arguing they are bad for wildlife and waterways and are divisive for communities.
“I think the best that can happen from something like this is it will truly identify some areas that are bad for wind,” Smith said.
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