Steve Wright said he has a personal and emotional relationship with the landscape of Lowell Mountain.
“I very much have had my feet on that ridgeline from end to end for a long time,” he said.
A former teacher with a background in aquatic biology and water resources, Steve started leading high school students into the area for outdoor educational experiences back in 1971. The ridgeline of Lowell Mountain was both a backdrop for the program he conducted for 13 years as well as his own retreat for hunting and fishing or simply solace.
“It’s just such an obvious special place as well if you come to Craftsbury or Albany or Westfield or Greensboro or Glover or any number of other towns in the Northeast Kingdom,” he said. “It’s quite special.”
A Craftsbury resident, Wright served as Vermont’s Forests and Parks Commissioner in the 1980s and on the state Environmental Board in the 1990s; he now serves on his town’s Environmental Commission. Today, his attention remains focused on Lowell Mountain. He’s leading the charge to stop Green Mountain Power from pursuing its plan to construct 21 wind turbines on the site – a project known as Kingdom Community Wind. He argues the development would change the hydrology of the mountain, damaging streams and destroying the ridgeline.
“Who would have thought Vermont would be blowing up a mountain in order to generate unneeded electricity?” Wright asked.
GMP says Kingdom Community Wind will generate 63 megawatts of power – enough electricity for 24,000 homes. Spokeswoman Dotty Schnure says renewable energy is a critical part of the utility’s portfolio and something it has sought to expand since building its first wind turbines in Searsburg in 1997.
“It’s clearly something the Legislature has said is good to do; in every survey we’ve done, our customers say they like wind,” she said. “And it’s local power, generated in Vermont, for Vermonters.”
But building turbines to generate wind power in Vermont is no easy task. Developers not only need to find locations where construction is appropriate and cost-effective, they must receive numerous permits and public support.
“Clearly, building anything in Vermont or anywhere, you’ve got people with differing opinions,” Schnure said. “We expect that. Every single generation source I’ve been involved in has people who like it and people who don’t like it.”
In fact, developers of nearly every industrial wind project proposed in Vermont in recent years – including those in Georgia, Ira and on Glebe Mountain, to name a few – have been met with public opposition.
But the first challenge developers face is finding a site with enough wind and the right geography.
“There are a limited number of locations in Vermont where you can build wind economically,” Schnure said. “You have to have the right wind resource; you have to have a north-south ridgeline that’s long enough to locate enough wind turbines to make it economic; you have to be close enough to the transmission system to be able to bring power off the mountain economically.”
Lowell met all the criteria.
Schnure said GMP has spent the past three years evaluating the viability of Kingdom Community Wind and received support from the local community.
“Early on, when we were approached with this opportunity, we went up and talked to select boards in Lowell and all the surrounding communities to say there’s a mountain here with a great wind resource and the landowner is interested in having us develop it; how does this fit with your view of what should be done in the Kingdom? And we got a positive response,” she said.
But Schnure said the company knew that response was not enough, and set out to make sure the community was truly on board.
“When we met with the Lowell select board, we said ‘If you don’t want this, we won’t build it. We don’t want to come in and force this on your town,’” Schnure said. “So the select board said, ‘In that case, we’ll have a vote.’ We spent close to a year giving the town information as we learned it, because early on we didn’t have a lot of information. As we did more and more work, we shared that information with the town. Twice we took bus trips to see an operating plant in Lempster, New Hampshire. As we said to people, ‘We can tell you how big it’s going to be but that may be hard to imagine. We can tell you what it’s going to sound like. You may hear from other people that it’s going to be really noisy. There is sound but it’s hard to judge that; the best thing is to see for yourself. Whether you support the project or whether you oppose it, come look at an operating plant in New Hampshire.’”
Lowell held a vote on Town Meeting Day in March 2010, and 75 percent of voters approved the project.
“That was significant,” Schnure said.
But Annette Smith, executive director of the advocacy group Vermonters for a Clean Environment, disagrees that there is widespread public support for large-scale wind development.
“Most Vermonters support wind energy. Right. Well, you poll them in the abstract, and what do they think of? Searsburg, (with turbines) 197 feet tall,” she said. “No lights, hardly anybody lives around them. Well, now they’re 450 feet tall.”
Smith does not describe herself as a wind energy opponent, but she has spent two and a half years speaking out against the Lowell project and others, including those proposed in Ira, Sheffield and Georgia.
“What we have found first and foremost is this is an issue that divides communities, turns neighbor against neighbor, family members against each other, towns against towns,” she said. “It is one ugly business.”
Smith said wind turbines developed in the Midwest are not designed to be built on mountaintops, where trees need to be cleared and roads need to be built around headwaters and wetlands. She said large turbines can kill birds and bats that fly into them; and the noise they produce can cause people to get sick or abandon their homes because they cannot sleep at night. Construction damages the watershed and destroys food and habitats for bears.
“We are going to lose Vermont as we know it if we don’t stop and really have a thoughtful discussion about what we’re doing,” she said.
On August 19, the project passed a critical hurdle when the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources issued five environmental permits governing stormwater, wetlands and water quality for its construction and operation.
Both Annette Smith and Steve Wright said they believe the ANR was under political pressure from the governor’s office to issue those permits. Governor Peter Shumlin has been an advocate for wind power development and supports the Lowell project.
“Due process has been completely overrun by the politics,” Smith said. “Somebody wrote to me this morning and asked if we can start using the word ‘scandal.’ It is no longer a democracy if this is how we go about doing things.”
“I was personally saddened and professionally dismayed by the issuance of those permits,” Wright said. “I think the agency quite frankly failed in its mission in designing that permit. I hate saying that, because I’ve watched that agency grow and mature and at one time be an effective voice for environmental protection in Vermont, and now seems to have forfeited that particular position in favor of giving developers permission to occupy our mountaintops.”
Shumlin’s predecessor, Jim Douglas, was less supportive of industrial wind development, recently saying he objects to putting 400-foot wind turbines on unspoiled ridgelines because the turbines don’t generate enough energy to justify themselves.
“There are people that no matter how much electricity is generated, would not justify cutting down a single tree. That’s their judgment,” GMP’s Dotty Schnure said. “In this case, it is going to generate enough electricity for 24,000 homes. That’s a significant amount of electricity. It will be about 8 percent of Green Mountain Power’s energy mix. What we also have to look at, it’s not a choice of wind or nothing. If we’re not getting that 8 percent from wind, we’re getting it from another resource, and what is the environmental impact of that other resource? Are we putting more carbon in the air? Every way you generate electricity has an environmental impact. So you have to weigh the impact of this project against what the impact of getting the same amount of energy from another project would be.”
Schnure said the project will have financial benefits to the local communities, as well as to the utility’s investors and customers.
“Lowell will benefit through the property taxes we’ll pay,” she said. “We also wanted to ensure the surrounding towns had a more direct economic benefit so we created what we call the Good Neighbor Fund, where we will make payments to the surrounding towns depending on how much area they have within five miles of the project for the first ten years that it’s operating.”
GMP does not serve customers in the Lowell area, but will sell power to the Vermont Electric Co-op at cost, giving Co-op members the same price for power as GMP customers – 9 cents per kilowatt hour.
“What (customers) tell us they want is power that is low-cost, low-carbon and reliable. Traditionally utilities can have low-cost but it’s dirty, or you can have clean, but it costs a lot,” Schnure said. “One of the things we realized is that when a utility owns renewable energy, that model becomes more cost-effective for customers. With Kingdom Community Wind, our investors will earn a capped rate of return on the investment as opposed to the developer that would get a higher rate of return.”
As for the opposition from environmental advocates, Schnure said a vigorous community discussion is always valuable.
“Some of the people that oppose it ask good and important questions,” she said. “They want to be sure water quality is protected, they want to be sure we do an adequate stormwater system, they want to be sure we’re doing what we can to protect wildlife – those are all really good questions. But what we have done is we have addressed all those issues.”
Schnure said GMP has worked to reduce the project’s impact on the wetlands and bear habitat by clearing fewer trees than originally planned and mitigating any damage by preserving other space.
“We are impacting 175 acres and we will be putting more than 1,000 acres in conservation easements,” she said.
As of late August, Schnure said the development still needed a final approval from the Public Service Board and a stormwater permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, but GMP was prepared to proceed with construction. The utility has hired Maine-based general contractor Reed & Reed to install 21 turbines manufactured by Vestas, a Danish company that began producing wind turbines in 1979. Schnure added that 77 local firms have already been used for various aspects of development. She expects the project to be built and operating by the end of 2012.
But opponents said they will continue to fight it. Days after the ANR permits were issued, 120 people signed a letter they delivered to Governor Shumlin and GMP President and CEO Mary Powell.
“The desecration of the Lowell Mountains that will result if the Lowell project moves forward is, to us, irreversible and unacceptable,” the letter stated. “Our efforts to resist this project will not fade if this project moves forward.”
Steve Wright said his town of Craftsbury will appeal permitting decisions to the Public Service Board and all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court. Although Craftsbury has not had a formal town vote on the issue, he believes many of his neighbors oppose the project.
“We’re not about to give up,” he said. “The mountain and what it represents are just too important.”
Kate Duffy is a journalist with more than 10 years of experience reporting on businesses and the economy in Vermont.