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Proposed wind towers draw questions

DERBY LINE – An uncomfortably hot and decidedly full house turned out on Monday night to hear a proposal to erect two massive wind towers on farms just east of Derby Line. The developers hope to have the towers permitted and fully operational by November 2012. The meeting was called jointly by the Derby Line Village Trustees and the Derby Town Selectmen.

The wind towers in question are a bit taller than those being erected in Sheffield, standing roughly 425-feet tall with the turbine blades fully vertical, even if they are not comparable in numbers. Grand View Farm, owned by Bryan and Susan Davis, would host one of the turbines while the Chase Farm, owned by Jonathan and Jayne Chase, would host the other.

Making their case before a mixed bag of local residents, neighbors and visitors from far-flung parts of Orleans County, were representatives from the four entities involved in the financing, design and operation of the wind turbines. Chad Farrell of Encore Redevelopment and John DeVillars of BlueWave Capital led much of the discussion.

Mr. Farrell pitched the $11-million project as a win-win-win situation for the parties involved. The farmers gain valuable additional income, the town gains additional property taxes, and the community benefits from retaining a working landscape while contributing to a cleaner environment.

“I think that anything that is designed to keep two of less than a thousand farms alive, I’m for it,” said Brian Smith, chairman of the selectmen.

While Mr. Smith was unabashedly in favor of the concept, his endorsement was not unanimous. Selectman Karen Jenne, who also serves as the Derby Line village clerk and would see the turbines from her home, was less enthusiastic.

“I will tell you right up front that I don’t support this,” Ms. Jenne said. “I have a number of concerns about the impact this will have.”

Among them, she said, was its potential effect on property values, and the possibility that the wind turbines would serve as navigation points for cross-border smugglers. Mr. Farrell replied that the smuggling issue had never really factored into their considerations.

Nick Richardson, director of operations for Encore Redevelopment, said several national studies that have found that wind turbines appear to have little if any negative effect on resale value.

Ms. Jenne had two more questions. Since the power from the wind turbines would be sold to Vermont Electric Cooperative, could co-op customers expect to see smaller electric bills? And would adding two 2.3-megawatt turbines require any upgrades to the existing transmission lines that co-op customers would have to cover?

Mr. Farrell said that line upgrades would be necessary, but the cost would be borne by the project developers.

Mr. DeVillars said the project would operate under the auspices of a state program called SPEED (Sustainably Priced Energy Development).

SPEED was passed by the Vermont Legislature in 2004, and revised in 2009, to encourage in-state generation of renewable energy. Its goal is to generate 20 percent of the state’s electric load from renewable sources in Vermont by the year 2017.

Under this program, projects completed by January 2013 would be eligible for rates based on the type of renewable energy they create, Mr. DeVillars said.

“It’s a fixed cost of 12 cents a kilowatt hour over 20 years,” he said. “The utilities are paying slightly above market rates to purchase this power. It’s not money in your pocket today, but as the analysts predict that fossil fuel generating costs will continue to rise over the long term, it will save money.”

Steve Wright of Craftsbury questioned just how “green” this project would be. Wind advocates have trumpeted that wind turbines help battle greenhouse gases and global warming, he said. The reality is that not a single fossil fuel generating plant would be shut down by this project, Mr. Wright said.

“It’s not like there’s a phone line connected to an excavator atop a mountain in West Virginia,” Mr. Wright said. “There won’t be someone saying ‘Stop, they’ve got wind blowing in Derby Line, Vermont.’”

Wind alone will not be the sole answer to global warming, Mr. Farrell acknowledged. It is, however, one of the small steps that can be taken to mitigate the problem.

“We need to deploy a multitude of different resources,” Mr. Farrell said. “In this area wind resources make sense economically.”

The low-end speed threshold for wind resources is six meters per second (about 13 miles an hour). The sites under consideration in Derby measure about seven meters per second (16 miles an hour), the developers said.

“In order to get an eight you’d need to be on top of Mount Mansfield,” said Nils Behn, director of wind business for Alteris Renewables, the firm that will engineer and construct the wind towers.

Joe Profera, chairman of the Derby Planning Commission, asked who would cover the cost of decommissioning the towers. They have an expected lifespan of 20 to 25 years, he said.

The cost of decommissioning is factored into the project cost, Mr. Farrell said. The expected lifespan is variable, and would be influenced by special circumstances and retrofits during a tower’s operational life, said Mr. Behn,.

Even if a turbine is inoperable, its steel, precious metals and magnets have tremendous salvage value, Mr. Behn said.

“You could ask anyone to take them down and they’d be more than happy to do it,” Mr. Behn said. “The value of the commodities far exceeds the cost to take them down.”

The proposed turbines operate on a permanent magnet, direct-drive system which eliminates the gearboxes typically blamed for wind turbine noise, said Jonathan Lynch of Northern Power Systems, the designers of the turbines for this project.

Dale Leroux, owner of the Barton-based Wind Turbines of Vermont, asked how reliable these new systems were. Mr. Lynch replied that the system is very new, but has performed well in testing at sites in Michigan.

The relatively slow rotation of the turbine blades, at 15 revolutions per minute, should also minimize noise levels to surrounding homes, Mr. Lynch added. The anticipated noise levels at 1,000 feet are expected to be about 48 decibels, roughly equivalent to the ambient noise in an office setting.

Contractor Grant Spates asked how many jobs the 18-month project would generate. The exact number is difficult to estimate, Mr. Farrell replied.

“Certainly not 100, but definitely more than 10,” he said. “We expect that there would be 20 or 25 to 50 jobs.”

The developers of the Derby project have been following the discussion surrounding the Lowell wind project. Of particular interest is the payment schedule negotiated between Green Mountain Power and the town of Lowell and its neighboring communities, Mr. Farrell said.

The exact rate of recompense could be based on something equivalent to a property tax, or derived from the actual output of the towers. These are things the developers and the municipalities would need to sit down and discuss, Mr. Farrell said.

In his opening statement, Mr. Farrell said that gaining community support was vital to the success of this project. During the presentation he was asked how the developers would gauge that support.

Mr. Farrell said that he and his team would remain in close contact with the area’s elected officials. He said they will serve as the conduit for public sentiment on the project.

State Representative Lynn Batchelor asked if they would be willing to return to answer questions that were not satisfactorily addressed on Monday night, or come up later. Mr. Farrell said that he would be willing to return at any time at the pleasure of the town officials.

“Our commitment to you is that this will be a very open, transparent, collaborative process,” Mr. Farrell said. “At the end of the day we know that not everyone will be in favor of this project. We just hope to provide you with the information you need to come to an informed decision.”