May 21, 2011

Doctor: Wind project doesn't make sense

Robin Smith, Staff Writer, The Caledonian-Record, via Energize Vermont, 18 May 2011

IRASBURG – A local doctor says the Lowell wind project doesn’t make economic sense in the big picture of energy consumption in the United States.

However, utility officials say the plan to put 21 turbines on Lowell’s ridge line is a good deal given state and federal energy policies and incentives.

These different points of view were presented to about 75 people Monday evening at Irasburg Town Hall in a meeting organized by the Irasburg Board of Selectmen.

The arguments didn’t appear to sway anyone in the audience. The real question is whether Dr. Ron Holland’s analysis of the economic viability of Vermont wind projects will have any impact on the Vermont Public Service Board.

The board is expected to rule this month about whether Green Mountain Power and its partners, Vermont Electric Cooperative and transmission company VELCO should receive a certificate of public good and the go-ahead for the state’s largest wind development to date.

The co-op’s CEO, Dave Hallquist, told the audience that Kingdom Community Wind, as the project is called, will cost 9 to 10 cents per kilowatt, the lowest cost of any power supply that meets state criteria for a renewable portfolio.

He compared that price to biomass, such as the wood-to-energy plant considered in Orleans, that is 13 cents per kilowatt. Solar is 20 to 30 cents and low-altitude wind turbines are 20 cents, he said.

Even newer generation solar panels are still more expensive than the Lowell wind project, Hallquist said. And geothermal energy for homes is still in the research phase for Vermont.

Holland said the PSB is not addressing the real cost and lack of impact on global warming of wind energy.

Current policies of the state and federal government encourage wind projects but don’t stop the increasing use of fossil fuels, Holland said, citing several national studies.

The policies that would really slow the use of fossil fuels would be cap and trade programs, which would cap the production of carbon from fuels and allow companies that need higher carbon-foot print fuels to trade with those that don’t – putting a higher value on low-carbon-footprint renewables and efficient processes.

Otherwise, Holland said, “you are just wasting your money” on the Lowell wind project.

He also said that there are much less costly places to put up industrial wind turbines, such as along the seaboard and elsewhere in the U.S.

“These are the questions that weren’t asked by the PSB,” Holland said.

He blamed the governments for encouraging projects such as Lowell wind, saying that the utility managers and leaders are good people. “They are simply responding to the policy environment.”

Residents in the Northeast Kingdom are suffering from a lack of energy policy, Holland said. “It’s a failure of national and I would say state leadership on this.”

Vermont, he said, is special in the world.

“There are very few places like it. This enterprise is tampering with our identity,” Holland said.

Both he and the VEC board of directors have repeatedly been through the financial numbers showing the economic viability of the wind project.

“My first legal responsibility is to keep the lights on. The second is to follow the public process,” Hallquist said.

He said VEC’s support for the Lowell project was important. “I don’t think GMP would have been successful if VEC hadn’t backed the project.”

Kathy Royer complained that she does not know her elected representative on the VEC Board of Directors. Irasburg, like Newport City, was formerly served by Citizens Utility, which VEC purchased.

Hallquist said any other utility would have gone for this project because of the cost.

Doug Smith, a GMP analyst, said wind projects are starting to reduce the increase in use of fossil fuels.

And GMP and VEC, which will buy electricity at cost from Lowell wind, will continue to benefit for years from the resource, Smith said. “It’s a reasonable price to lock in a long-term stable source.”

“Dr. Holland is right. Vermont is a small piece in national energy consumption,” Smith said. But the wind project has a “meaningful and measurable” impact on the energy picture.

One person asked why wind turbines don’t go up on Camel’s Hump, so Chittenden County residents can see them too.

The spine of Camel’s Hump would offer a good wind resource, Smith said. However, he said construction would be tough and costly, and it would be “brutal” to get the electricity down the mountain to the grid.

Lowell wind, he said, “is the best I have ever seen.”

Fred Snay asked the utilities to consider the financial impact of the wind project on land values, which are the local residents’ retirement plans.

“We don’t trust government any more,” he said.

Robert Dostis of GMP said PSB heard from 50 witnesses including Holland and has thousands of pages of testimony to consider in making a decision.

The PSB, he said, is looking out for the ratepayer.

Every renewable energy project must be seriously considered, he said.

Vermonters only have to look at the record-breaking weather patterns this year to understand what scientists have been warning would be coming with climate change – a wetter climate in Vermont, Dostis said.

“We all have a responsibility … to do what we can to reduce our carbon footprint,” Dostis said. “To me we have to do everything.”

Vermont utilities can buy on the market or use local energy sources, he said.

The bottom line, he said, is the price being paid for the electricity.

Many audience members, opposed to Lowell wind, shouted “no” as he spoke.

The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources is set to host the next meeting about Lowell wind 6 p.m. June 2 at Lowell’s school.

The issue will be dealing with storm-water runoff during construction of both turbines and power line.

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