SHEFFIELD – Crews of men and machines prepared Tuesday to hoist three 150-foot blades to the top of T-5, a 240-foot metal tower stuck like a giant spike on an unnamed ridgeline deep in the Northeast Kingdom.
The wind turbine is the first of 16 that will be strung along the ridge this summer by First Wind, a Boston-based company. Workers are finishing 6.5 miles of roads, hauling 70-foot-long tower sections up steep hills in giant tractor-trailers and assembling the towers, generators and blades that will make up the first five turbines.
“Once we get everything assembled, they’ll go up like mushrooms – one every three days,” said John Lehman, a superintendent for RMT Inc., a Madison, Wisc.-based construction company, as he watched the work.
The $90 million project is the first wind farm of significant size to be built in Vermont, and it is expected to generate 115,000 megawatt-hours of electricity each year – enough to power all the homes in Caledonia County. (The county has just shy of 16,000 homes, and about 12,500 households, according to census data.)
Construction comes after nearly a decade of impassioned debate, policy review and legal challenges regarding the potential energy benefits and environmental effects of putting wind turbines on Vermont’s undeveloped mountaintops.
The sprawling construction site almost resembled a military invasion Tuesday. More than 150 men and their massive machines swarmed over the west side of the ridge, along raw roads blasted through rock and carved from a forest of balsam and maple.
Two dozen crushed-stone basins, some the size of Olympic swimming pools, were spotted along the road and turbine pads. Stone-lined ditches drained muddy runoff into the basins to keep silt out of the headwater streams that spill down the ridge. Periodically, the road widened into acre-sized clearings that had been leveled for installation of the turbines.
First Wind spokesman John Lamontagne said the company hopes to complete construction by October and to begin generating power by Jan. 1. One-half the project’s output will be sold to Vermont Electric Cooperative, 40 percent to Burlington Electric Department and 10 percent to Washington Electric Cooperative.
But even as the first turbine went up, the battle over wind energy, and the Sheffield project in particular, continued in the courts.
Project opponents and the company filed briefs this week in the Vermont Supreme Court, where opponents are appealing the state stormwater permit for the construction phase of Sheffield Wind.
Asked if the issue were not moot, since construction is well underway, Paul Brouha of Sutton, a leading opponent, said the challenge – alleging that construction runoff will damage high mountain streams – remains important.
“It may be moot for Sheffield, but a decision could be significant for Lowell, Georgia and others,” he said, referring to recently approved wind projects in those towns.
Opponents believe wind turbines provide too little energy at too high a cost to justify the environmental degradation they believe the projects inevitably cause.
First Wind and other wind developers have persuaded environmental regulators and the Public Service Board that the projects’ environmental impact on undeveloped mountaintops, as well as aesthetic and noise impacts on surrounding landowners, can be mitigated or are outweighed by the value of providing renewable energy.
Both sides in the debate might have cited Tuesday’s scene in Sheffield to support their positions.
On one hand, Lamontagne and First Wind environmental manager Josh Bagnato were at pains to point out the visible mitigation measures the company has taken: elaborate stormwater treatment systems, roads kept narrow as possible, turbine sites with the minimum possible clearing.
For example, instead of clearing a huge circle around each turbine pad to allow the 150-foot blades to be fanned out for assembly, First Wind cleared a smaller area with narrow indentations into the surrounding woods to accommodate the blades, Bagnato said.
Much of the area cleared will be allowed to grow back to natural vegetation once construction is complete, he said.
On the other hand, opponents would note that the project clearly had altered the high ridgeline environment, with 25- to 40-foot-wide swathes of forest cleared for roads that have been hardened with crushed rock. At one spot, mud-covered rock above a brook gave evidence of runoff that could have reached the stream.
On the far side of the ridge to the east, the sound of construction could be faintly heard at Brouha’s farmhouse. The first tower was visible, a bit whiter than the clouds behind it.
“When there’s a north wind, it’s like the construction is right here in the dooryard,” Brouha said.
He said that noise is a precursor of what he, his wife, Carol, and some of their neighbors fear will be the disruption of calm from the turning turbine blades. They expect the value of their property, located less than a mile from the nearest turbine, to decline, he said.
The construction site confirms his fears that the wind project will fragment the habitat of bears and other denizens of the ridge, as well as permanently damage small streams, said Brouha, a retired wildlife biologist.
Wind energy continues to divide Northeast Kingdom residents. While Brouha has told First Wind he may go to court to protect his peace and property values, others continue to applaud the development, which has provided at least 60 temporary jobs in the area.
As they ate a late lunch Tuesday at the Valley View Restaurant in Lyndonville, Roger and Judy LaCross said they haven’t changed their mind about the “Wind Energy Now” sticker on their car.
“We totally believe in windpower,” Judy LaCross said. “It’s clean. It’s renewable. I’ve seen the tower that’s up. It doesn’t bother me at all if it’s going to help with our electricity.”