LOWELL – Earlier this year Green Mountain Power began construction on the Kingdom Community Wind Project – the largest wind project in the state – but some activists are saying the project is doing irreparable damage to one of the state’s most pristine tracks of wilderness.
Vermont’s energy future has sparked a profound debate and passionate ideals have led some commercial-scale wind opponents to resort to civil disobedience to get their message out to public.
Last Tuesday, six protesters were in Newport criminal court, where they faced charges of trespassing on the property on which the project is being installed.
Anne Morse, of Craftsbury, was one of those protesters. She is a professor at Sterling College and lives in one of the five surrounding towns that will be able to see the 21 459-foot structures that will sit at the summit of the Lowell Mountain Range.
“My focus, and interest, is doing away with ridgeline wind here, and I decided to take direct action to oppose the project,” said Morse. “I feel good about my act of civil disobedience. When the regulation, political and legal process all fail it is the only course of action for us.”
“If you feel strongly about an issue it is important to act on your conscience and sometimes that means acting against the law.”
On Dec. 5, when Morse was arrested with five other members of a group calling themselves the Lowell Mountain Occupiers, they stood in the road built for the project, blocking vehicles while holding Vermont and US flags, as well as large banners calling to stop the project.
“Commercial wind is not right for Vermont’s ridgelines,” said Morse.
Morse said her main goal in the protest efforts is to bring to light the environment impact that commercial wind projects will have on the state’s ridgelines.
Even if she is not able to change the path the KCWP is taking, she said she hopes her message gets out to those who will be affected by future wind projects.
In recent months, the fine line between speaking out and breaking the law is generating its own momentum and energy. And as a result, the wind debate is quickly picking up speed.
Protest vs. trespass
“They are not protesters, they are trespassers,” said Dorothy Schnure, corporate communications manager at GMP.
Schnure said opponents to the project had many opportunities to bring the issues they had with the project before the Public Service Board.
“By trespassing on our property, they are creating safety issues for themselves and our workers and causing costly delays,” said Schnure,a dding that prior to starting the project, the company went through a rigorous permitting process to comply with Act 248, which lays out the requirements to receive a certificate of public good with respect to utilities.
GMP is investing $165 million for the project, and will have a maximum capacity of some 66 megawatt hours, or enough energy to power 24,000 homes.
Schnure said that some of that energy will be sold to customers in the Northeast Kingdom through contracts with Vermont Electric Cooperative, the company serving those customers. When the project is completed, it will amount to 8 percent of all the power GMP sells.
The project also will produce the most cost-efficient renewable power – about 10 cents per kilowatt hour – available on the market.
As wind is an intermittent power supply, the rates for a 24-hour a day, seven day a week baseload power cannot be exactly compared, but GMP pays the power supply company Hydro Quebec 5.8 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity that GMP then resells.
Schnure said the project was made financially feasible by a tax credit of about $48 million, which must be passed on to the ratepayers.
“This is the best deal for customers when it comes to renewable power,” said Schnure.
Before the KCWP was approved by the Public Service Board it had to undergo the Act 248 permitting process. For the process, the company did extensive research into the environmental impacts, an in-depth cost analysis and were required to meet to 50 regulatory conditions the board set out before the certificate of public good was issued.
During the process, outside groups were given the opportunity to share their concerns about the project and the PSB took those groups’ concerns into consideration and outlined requirements that would help alleviate those concerns.
At the time, one of the major concerns was for the stormwater runoff that could be created by the project.
“We have put a very top of the line stormwater management system in place,” said Schnure. “We believe, and outside experts believe, that it is the best system available.”
Schnure said that when the project is complete, there will be a road 18 feet wide going up the mountain and then becoming 34 feet wide and 2.5 miles long at the ridge.
“We’ve taken people up and they say how surprised they are at how little impact the project has created,” she said.
The project will directly affect 175 acres of land, according to Schnure, and to offset that impact the company has paid to place 1,700 acres in a conservation easement.
“When you build a wind project you try to make sure to have as little environmental impact as possible, and we have mitigation projects in place for the impact that we do have,” said Schnure.
Schnure said that the project has produced some big economic benefits to the area, including some 200 construction workers that are currently employed on the project, and the tax payments that will be made to Lowell.
GMP also has created the Good Neighbor Fund to ensure surrounding towns get a financial benefit.
Schnure said that yearly payments will be made to towns bordering the project. Westfield, Irasburg, Craftsbury, Albany and Eden will all receive payments of at least $10,000 for the first 10 years the project is in operation.
“We think it is really important that there is direct value to the surrounding area,” said Schnure.
Attached to the land
But there are others who say GMP is full of wind.
Among those arrested with Morse was Steve Wright, of Albany. Wright said that he has strong emotional ties to the property where the wind turbines are to be erected next summer.
“I have been involved with this piece of land for more than 40 years,” said Wright. “And it began with a personal relationship with the land.”
Wright serves on his town’s conservation commission, and was one of the parties that opposed the project during the Act 248 application process.
“When we saw the first description of the project, I was shocked and stunned at the level of alteration to the mountain,” said Wright.
The group currently has an appeal of the permit at the Vermont Supreme Court.
“No one in their right mind, including the utilities, should compromise that piece of land,” said Wright.
Wright said his act of civil disobedience underlies his strong feeling that you don’t have to destroy the landscape to protect the state from climate change.
It is a conundrum: Those who believe in renewable energy’s worth drawing the line on how far to go in order to be green.
“What we are trying to do is find a way to deliver that message to the people of Vermont and we needed to find our voice,” said Wright. “The protesters are not doing what they are just for fun and outrageousness.”
“We think (commercial wind) is a bad energy and financial policy for the state of Vermont,” said Wright. “Not only in the unadulterated Lowell Mountain Range, but for the rest of the projects that are slated around the state.”
Wright said that he takes issue with the process that GMP went through to get the public’s consensus for the project.
At a town meeting in 2010, a referendum was held in Lowell and 342 voters gave their approval for the project.
There was a lot at stake for the tiny town of fewer than 800 residents. If the project passed, nearly half of a million dollars would be paid annually in property taxes.
“The utilities have found an effective formula for advancing these projects through substantial tax incentives,” said Wright.
Wright said that while voters in Lowell approved the project, no such vote was held in the surrounding towns affected by the project.
Wright said the same thing happened in Sheffield with the surrounding towns not getting their say.
“Basically, a commercial utility plopped down on our ridgeline because the voters in one town got to have their say,” said Wright.
“Until the last nail is driven into that project, we hold on to the hope that we can alter it,” said Wright.
Schnure said the project is scheduled for completion in December 2012.
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