One of my favorite pieces of Vermont trivia has been that the tallest manmade structure in the state is the Bennington Battle Monument, at 306 feet tall – and construction of it was completed in 1889!
I’m due for an update, however (and so is the Wikipedia entry on the monument). Since 1997 Vermont has had a major wind development in Searsburg, with turbines “only” 132 feet tall, but this summer First Wind has been installing 16 turbines, each 420-feet tall, on a Sheffield ridgeline in the Northeast Kingdom. By next summer, 21 460-foot wind turbines are likely to be installed on four miles of ridgeline in Lowell as part of Green Mountain Power’s Kingdom Community Wind project.
I would consider myself open-minded about wind power. I believe we need nonpolluting sources of energy to wean ourselves from fossil fuels and to stave off climate change. On the other hand, I’ve heard that wind developments can have a surprisingly big impact on the environment.
To understand this issue better, I spoke with Steve Wright. Steve is the former president of Sterling College, and was the Commissioner of Vermont Fish and Wildlife under Governor Kunin. Recently he has been volunteering as a liaison for the Town of Craftsbury in the permitting process for the Lowell wind project.
What impacts? When viewed from afar, many people thing that large wind turbines look picturesque, even inspiring. It would be easy to imagine that those turbines were planted in the ground like trees from some sort of giant helicopter, with no effect on the surrounding area.
Not so. The road you have to build to get the turbine there, and building infrastructure like transmission lines, has a huge effect. “There is a huge difference between planting a turbine in a cornfield next to a residence, versus putting a turbine on a ridgeline where there are no roads and no transmission lines, which is the case with most of Vermont’s ridgelines,” says Wright.
According to Wright, who quoted permitting documents to give me these figures, the Lowell project will require an access road of between 190 and 215 feet in width along four miles of ridgeline. Then, at each turbine, an additional 190 feet must be cleared in a circle for the crane to be able to turn around it and do its work.
Given the density at which the turbines are being placed, this amounts to 400 feet of road running almost continuously across what is now an untouched ridgeline. Like any highway, this one will require extensive blasting and flattening to provide the required access.
For comparison, one lane of I-91 is 12 feet wide, meaning that 33 lanes would fit into this “access road.” That doesn’t include additional access roads and clearing performed for transmission lines.
According to Wright, there are basically three permitting bodies that a project like the one in Lowell has to go through: the Public Service Board, the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR), and the federal government, in the form of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Lowell project has cleared the first two hurdles.
Having just been through Hurricane Irene, and the massive and destructive flooding that it brought to Vermont, I am acutely aware of the natural flow of water through our mountainous landscapes, and how water can build and lead to flooding, erosion and sedimentation patterns that would be difficult to imagine in drier times. Much of the reaction after the flooding has focused on lost homes and destroyed highways, but fish and wildlife are adversely affected when streams, pools and other waterways fill up with silt and when riparian habitat is washed away.
I asked Wright how building four miles of Interstate highway on top of a ridgeline – a rocky environment exposed to plenty of rain, and upstream of hundreds of square miles of streams, pools, culverts, bridges, and roads–could be deemed safe by ANR with respect to flooding risk.
Wright depicted the permitting process as involving “Two sets of dueling experts who come together and see who has the most people standing, once they have tried to cut each other into pieces.” The result? “We felt that we proved that the engineering design was unworkable and then we reinforced that with the opinion of a disinterested third pa rty, but even then the ANR rejected our findings and approved the project.”
To be clear, Wright noted that neither he nor the towns that he is working with, Craftsbury and Albany, are opposed to the Lowell project. “We never said that we don’t want the development. We have said that you had better take care of our interests and concerns.”
Seems reasonable to me. And what about the interests of other Vermonters – black bears, among them? “Loss of wildlife habitat” is so abstract – but Wright explained to me exactly what that means.
Right about now, in early fall as black bears are getting ready for hibernation, beech stands at high elevations are an important source for protein. Although they are still in a milky, unhardened state, beechnuts are forming now in abundant clusters in healthy, high-quality stands. Bears climb the trees, often quite a ways up, gather up clusters of nuts in “brooms” and chew them down.
The developer in Lowell plans to destroy 22 acres of “high quality” American beech growth for the access road up from Route 100. ANR approved a deal in which they preserved about 500 acres of land in a different location, but according to Wright, this land contains much lower-quality beech forest.
Learning everything I’ve shared with you here has been enough to give me serious pause in considering wind development. Is it hypocritical for environmentalists to oppose wind? We do need clean energy, right? Exploring that issue will require another column, however. In the meantime, send your comments and questions on monuments, ridgelines, bears, beeches, and anything else from today.
Tristan Roberts is Editorial Director at BuildingGreen, Inc., in Brattleboro, Vermont, which publishes information on green building solutions. You can learn more at www.BuildingGreen.com.