Local power customers could make things difficult for a wind farm proposed in the Northeast Kingdom.
Energize Vermont, a renewable energy policy group that opposes the Kingdom Community Wind project in Lowell, is asking Vermont Electric Co-op members to reject a move to upgrade some of the utility’s power lines and equipment, because the wind farm is part of the deal.
The wind project, proposed by Green Mountain Power, would install up to 21 three-megawatt turbines along a 3-mile stretch of the Lowell Mountain Range. Each turbine would have its own 400-foot-tall tower.
Proponents say the project will bring clean power to the region; opponents say it will hurt wildlife and ruin the local tourist economy.
“This project has more of a negative impact which will far outweigh savings,” said Lukas Snelling, spokesman for Energize Vermont and grandson of former Republican governor Richard Snelling.
The state Public Service Board approved the project earlier this year.
Vermont Electric Co-op’s leadership wants to upgrade 16.9 miles of transmission line between Jay and Lowell, and save money by contracting to handle power from the wind project. A massive expansion at Jay Peak Resort – two hotels, a water park and an ice rink – is also prompting the utility to ask for an upgrade to the lines, which date to the late 1960s.
Vermont Electric Co-op is a member-owned utility that serves much of northern Vermont, including parts of Stowe, Morristown, Cambridge and Johnson.
Because the co-op’s 34,000 members have voting power on whether to build the new lines, Energize Vermont is knocking on doors around the region, trying to get members to scuttle the upgrade and thus stall the wind project.
Co-op members will receive a ballot by mail, and can vote between July 5 and 26. Also on the ballot are a new contract with the Canadian utility Hydro-Quebec and a change in the co-op’s bylaws that could allow members to get a return when the utility makes money.
David Hallquist, CEO of the co-op, said it’s rare to get a huge turnout for a ballot vote, and he is worried that Energize Vermont and other critics may hijack the process.
“We have a very active group involved in opposing this wind project,” he said. “If we didn’t do anything, this special-interest group could mobilize opponents. We’re going into special mode to get our members to the ballot.”
Hallquist points to surveys that found most co-op customers favor wind power, even if they could see towers from their homes.
Hallquist hopes savings will carry the day with co-op members.
The upgrade including the wind-farm connection would cost $12 million, with $7 million of that covered by Green Mountain Power, he said.
If voters say no, the line upgrades will be needed anyway, with an $8.9 million cost that co-op members would bear all by themselves.
Because the state government wants utilities to get 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2017, the co-op would have to find sources other than the Lowell project, and that would cost members more, he said. The 20 percent figure isn’t a mandate, but “we’re treating it very seriously,” he said.
Hallquist said Green Mountain Power could also contract with Central Vermont Public Service, another investor-owned utility, to carry the power from the wind farm if co-op voters kill the proposal.
“It would happen anyway,” he said. “This is not a vote on the Kingdom Community Wind project.”
Snelling doesn’t buy that.
Snelling said a “no” vote could kill the Lowell project, because Green Mountain Power would have to work out a deal with Central Vermont Public Service and have construction completed by the end of 2012 to qualify for federal tax credits.
Robert Dostis, a spokesman for Green Mountain Power, declined comment on what would happen if the project couldn’t meet the tax-credit deadline.
“It’s not a question we are entertaining at this time, as we have, from the very beginning, been laser-focused on meeting our deadline,” he said. “It’s also important to keep in mind that the tax credit may very well be extended, as they have in the past, and the ‘what if’ question will not be pertinent.”
Snelling thinks that, if the towers are approved, they will do irreversible harm to the area’s tourist industry and wildlife.
“From an economic point of view, that area is absolutely beautiful, a jewel in Vermont,” he said. “To sacrifice prominent ridgelines to benefit a technology that is inappropriate in this state is wrong.”
Snelling points to solar arrays in other parts of Vermont that have less visual impact.
On top of the economic issues, he said, a wind farm would require new roads to be built and rock to be blasted, which would harm wildlife habitat.
Several neighbors of the project have opposed the development, but the Public Service Board ultimately concluded the project would benefit the state.
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