Though the Vermont Public Service Board’s massive, 179-page decision and certificate of public good for the Lowell wind project is on the table, the battles are far from over.
Attorneys for both sides have already filed requests that the board modify particular conditions it imposed on the project.
And a sort of rear guard action is shaping up that, if successful, would have the Vermont Electric Cooperative’s members vote against a power line upgrade that would carry the project’s power to consumers.
The changes requested by the winning side, the utilities, are fairly modest, and mostly involve timing. The board ordered that most of its conditions be met before Green Mountain Power begins construction.
The utility has asked that some of these deadlines be pushed back, so it can begin construction by August 1.
It must do so, the utility argues, to have the project on line by the end of 2012. And if it fails to do that, it says, it stands to lose federal production tax credits that would amount to just over 2 cents per kilowatt hour generated by the project.
The requested delays are for conditions that Green Mountain Power provide Lowell emergency workers with specialized equipment to rescue workers from wind towers; easements to provide wildlife with access between natural areas fragmented by the project; a study of the project’s impact on the reliability of the electric grid; and archaeological studies of the areas affected, including the new 19-mile transmission line from Lowell to Jay.
“Although GMP is confident it can comply with all four conditions, it cannot do so by the date required to commence construction,” it said in a motion for reconsideration filed on Tuesday. “As a result, reconsideration is appropriate.”
The utilities have also attacked a board demand that Green Mountain Power draft a plan to compensate landowners who lose residential development rights to part of their property because of the high noise levels of nearby turbines.
In its decision, the Public Service Board (PSB) referred specifically to two nearby landowners who opposed the project: Donald and Shirley Nelson and Milo and Bonnie Day.
Two board members, David Coen and John Drake, acknowledged a state Supreme Court ruling that the board could not take individual property rights into consideration in its decisions. Nevertheless, they said, the two couples’ argument “has a more compelling character,” than previous cases.
The third board member, Chairman James Volz, disagreed on the issue of landowner compensation, while he agreed that the certificate of public good should be issued.
The noise from the turbines was a key element in the arguments of two towns that oppose the project. In his motion for reconsideration, also filed Tuesday, Jericho attorney Jared Margolis argues that the project won’t be able to meet the noise standards imposed by the PSB.
Those standards are maximums of 45 decibels outside nearby homes, and 30 decibels inside, averaged over an hour.
According to its own expert testimony based on sound modeling, the towns argue, “the interior noise standard will not be met. Allowing a project that, at the outset, has not shown it can meet a necessary health standard cannot be in the public good and the Board must reconsider its decision….”
The 30-decible limit would be exceeded, the towns argue, if the bedroom windows of nearby homes were more than slightly open.
The towns also argue that, when sleep deprivation is a concern, the relevant measure should be “instantaneous” noise rather than levels averaged over an hour.
Experts on both sides stated that wind turbine noise is not continuous in nature, and that their “swish-swish” effect is particularly annoying. In an approach that does not directly involve the PSB, an organization that supports small-scale renewable energy projects while it opposes industrial wind is planning a flanking attack on the project. Energize Vermont will urge members of the Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC) to vote against the upgrade of its power line between Lowell and Jay.
The upgrade is part of the project that was approved by the PSB. But under VEC rules, it requires membership approval.
The co-op’s chief executive officer, David Hallquist, said Tuesday that ballots will go out to members on July 5, and must be returned in time to be counted at a special meeting on July 26.
Members in all 74 towns served by the customer-owned cooperative are eligible to vote, Mr. Hallquist said.
VEC’s board has voted to buy a portion of the Lowell project’s power from GMP at cost.
For its part, GMP has agreed to pay $7-million of the upgrade’s estimated cost of $12-million, cutting the co-op’s share to $5-million.
An upgrade of the line is needed whether or not it carries power from the wind project, Mr. Hallquist said. Without GMP’s participation, a smaller line would cost $8.9-million, he said, with the full cost borne by the co-op.
That extra expense would raise the co-op’s rates by 1 percent, he said, while buying replacement power for the wind power would raise rates by another 1.8 percent.
“If the members vote it down,” Mr. Hallquist said, “rates will go up, and they’re still going to look at the project.”
Mr. Hallquist said GMP could move the project’s power out of Lowell on a line owned by VELCO that runs to Irasburg.
At GMP Tuesday, spokesman Dorothy Schnure said her utility is currently evaluating the effect of a rejection by VEC members.
“But we will make it work,” she said.
Ira Powsner, a community organizer for Energize Vermont, said his group will work with co-op members from Orleans County to reach out to the membership, talk to local businesses, and speak to community organizations like the Rotary Club.
The utilities may find an ally against this campaign in a major supporter of wind power, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG).
Its clean energy program director, James Moore, said Tuesday that VPIRG is not yet directly involved. However, he added, “it’s not a bad idea.” It’s possible VPIRG will contact its members who are also VEC members and urge them to support the transmission line, Mr. Moore said.
“We’re supportive, and think the upgrade makes good sense for the grid,” he said. “To try and kill the wind project through some sort of proxy vote is grasping at straws.
“I don’t know what kind of tactics they’re going to use,” Mr. Moore said of Energize Vermont. “I have not been impressed at how honest wind opponents have been in past. I hope they will not manipulate and mislead the public on this issue.”
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