On Tuesday the Vermont Public Service Board gave Green Mountain Power permission to go ahead with construction of the controversial Kingdom Community Wind project.
The board granted the state’s second largest utility a certificate of public good to construct 21 turbines on Lowell Mountain. Final approval is subject to 42 conditions, many of which must be fulfilled before construction begins.
The order starts Green Mountain Power in a race against time: Utility officials have testified that they need to begin construction in August in order to finish in time to qualify for federal tax credits that expire at the end of 2012.
The total cost is estimated at between $136 million to $153 million. Kingdom Community Wind is expected to generate enough electricity on average to power more than 20,000 homes.
Green Mountain Power is overseeing the project in partnership with Vermont Electric Cooperative. Transmission facilities and service roads are to be built in Lowell, with new transmission facilities in Lowell, Westfield, and Jay.
“Kingdom Community Wind will produce the lowest-cost new renewable energy for our customers,” said Mary Powell, president and chief executive officer of Green Mountain Power. “This project will bring economic benefits to electric consumers, as well as to the northeast region of Vermont, and we are pleased that the Board agreed.”
Opponents said the decision was “lopsided” and favored GMP.
Co-counsel for the Lowell Mountains Group Aliena Gerhard said, “Issuing a CPG with 42 conditions is like issuing a ‘permit in theory.’ This permit leaves a lot unresolved and demonstrates that this case is far from over.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, has endorsed the project, and the administration has worked to smooth the permitting process.
Liz Miller, Commissioner of the Department of Public Service, said, “I think the Board did a thorough and complete job attempting to address the concerns. They put in place of set of conditions GMP still has to meet. I was glad to see how well considered all of the views were. I understand there were deeply held views on it. I recognize the Public Service Board’s decision was not welcomed by people opposed to the project. I still believe the board did a good job of addressing those concerns.”
The Agency of Natural Resources reached agreement with Green Mountain Power regarding wildlife habitat issues in February, and Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz lauded the decision.
“We’re really happy,” Markowitz enthused. “We think this decision is solid. It reflects the hard work and recommendations of our staff on how to mitigate for adverse effects of large wind projects. We’re happy in particular that the Board adopted the recommendations of the Agency with respect to our requests for mitigations to impacts to wildlife habitat—bear in this case—as well as with respect to wetlands, birds and bats, and to the fragmenting effects of the project.”
The requirements imposed on Green Mountain Power before construction commences include:
• Filing more detailed design plans for PSB approval
• Assessing the quality of TV reception near the project, so they can tell whether the finished project interferes with residents’ viewing
• Filing a plan for transporting everything to the site, including the large towers and turbine blades
• Filing a decommissioning plan for the turbines, including how the cost will be funded
• Filing more than a dozen plans related to environmental restoration, monitoring, and management
• Securing easements to ensure wildlife corridors connect habitat blocks with each other
• Submitting a final study to prove that the turbines’ intermittently available electricity will not cause problems with the transmission system
• Preparing a winter operating protocol to protect nearby areas from ice flying off the turbine blades
• Obtaining stormwater permits
• Preparing a noise monitoring plan.
Opponents of the project have the opportunity to weigh in on many of the plans that GMP is still required to submit for Public Service Board approval. Beyond that, they indicated that they were not going to merely accept the decision.
Nancy Warner, president of the Lowell Mountain Group, said that the decision was more favorable than they expected. Still, she said, “we don’t think the issue has come to a final conclusion.” She said the group is considering an appeal of the decision.
Brice Simon, attorney for the Lowell Mountain Group, indicated that they may appeal the project’s stormwater permits.
Don Nelson, whose house would be the closest to the turbines, said he was considering filing a lawsuit. “The show isn’t over until the fat lady sings,” he said. “The project would affect us very severely, the way our property is located.”
Energize Vermont, a group promoting smaller-scale renewable energy solutions, said in a press release, “Appeals can be expected on the question of the Public Service Board’s authority to declare that public benefits outweigh undue adverse effects.” They did not specify who we can expect to submit those appeals.
Other non-governmental organizations were quite happy with the decision. James Moore of VPIRG declared himself “really pleased” with the decision.
“Wind energy needs to be a big part of a renewable energy future to protect the environment and promote the local economy,” Moore said.
Sandy Levine of the Conservation Law Foundation also commended the quasi-judicial body.
Levine said, “The Public Service Board did a good job of balancing the interests and figuring out a way to allow this project to go forward and to protect important environmental resources as well.”
The approval was largely unanimous among the three Public Service Board members. However, one issue split them: whether to impose an unprecedented requirement on GMP to compensate adjoining landowners if the turbines are so loud that the owners can no longer build residences on part of their land.
Board members David Coen and John Burke imposed the requirement. Board chair James Volz dissented.
Volz endorsed the concept of a compensation fund and urged Green Mountain Power to develop it, but he opined that the PSB lacked authority to order GMP to create the fund.
Everyone commenting on the case gave some version of the caveat that they were still digesting the PSB’s 170-page order. The issues will come into sharper focus, and more issues may be raised, after the parties have more time to consider the order and their possible next steps.
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