Few people get to enjoy the views of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom that Catherine Morrell and her colleagues do. They climb straight up nearly 300 feet, to see the world from the top of wind turbines.
“A lot people don’t like the way they look on the mountaintops, but I think they’re gorgeous,” Morrell said.
She works for the Boston company First Wind. Its 16 new turbines in Sheffield produce enough electricity to power 15,000 Vermont homes serviced by Washington Electric Co-op, Vermont Electric Co-op and Burlington Electric. The $100 million facility began operating last fall. Eight people work there: three employees of First Wind, and five of a maintenance subcontractor called Clipper.
Morrell oversees environmental compliance at the site. Even though energy the farm produces is called “clean” and “green,” First Wind admits that by the very nature of wind development, it made big changes to the natural landscape. “We had to take out vegetation,” Morrell said.
Approximately 200 construction workers sunk towers deep into the mountains, after cutting a network of roads. When NECN visited, Morrell was driving those roads; checking stormwater runoff.
“This is exactly what we want to see,” Morrell said, crouching down to inspect a trickle of clear water from a storm pipe. “We’ve joked that we should open a bottled spring water business here!”
In an attempt to combat sediment runoff into streams, First Wind dug pools to filter material washing off the site. The company’s hope is that only clean water enters streams.
“Everything we do here has a zero impact on the environment and the wildlife around,” Morrell said.
New England Cable News asked Morrell if her employment by First Wind affects her ability to monitor the company’s environmental footprint fairly and accurately.
“I’m absolutely on the side of Vermonters,” she answered. “I grew up in Vermont, I love Vermont, and I love the environment.”
A recent report from Vermont’s Natural Resources Agency found the Sheffield construction had no significant impact on water quality in the area. But opponents of large-scale wind remain very skeptical. They charge ridge line blasting does irreparable harm, and claim towers kill birds.
“I don’t think Vermonters will realize the damage until after it’s done,” Sheffield resident and wind opponent Greg Bryant told NECN in late October when the wind farm opened in his town.
Luanne Therrien lives less than a mile from the First Wind site, and can count 12 towers visible from her backyard. Therrien said she supports renewable energy, believes it’s good to wean the nation off other emissions-heavy forms of power generation, and was glad for the farm’s more than $500,000 in annual tax revenues when the project was proposed. Now, though, she’s having second thoughts.
“If you wake up at night, you’re not going to get back to sleep,” the mother of two sighed.
Therrien said “whooshing” noises bother her, and blades sometimes cast flickering shadows inside her home. “We didn’t even think we’d be able to see them,” she remembered.
“With building anything in Vermont, you have people with different opinions,” said Dotty Schnure, a spokeswoman for Green Mountain Power.
Green Mountain Power said its customers want wind energy, for a low-carbon-emitting addition to the utility’s power portfolio. The company is now building a $160-million dollar farm, larger than the Sheffield project, in nearby Lowell, Vt. It will provide electricity to an estimated 24,000 customers.
“We’re meeting very high environmental standards for the project,” Schnure said.
To offset permanent alterations to the more than 135-acre site, GMP has pledged to conserve 2,700 additional acres of land. “If we have an impact on the environment, we do something to make up for it,” Schnure said.
Schnure added that the company will install sound level monitoring systems at its wind farm, which is expected to open by the end of the year.
Back at the First Wind site, Catherine Morrell pointed out a moose for our camera that she spotted on her bumpy ride in her ATV. She said she is proud of the company’s promises to avoid wild animals’ wintering grounds, to handle toxic materials safely, and to power down turbines during bat migrations, to avoid bat deaths.
First Wind said it wants to be a model for a growing industry. “As long as you go out of your way to not upset the balance of the environment, [wind farms are] absolutely green,” Morrell said.
Still, she knows debate will swirl as long as wind developers eye unspoiled rural mountains. Several projects are in the works, or being considered, for sites around Vermont, and they’re drawing the scrutiny of opposition groups. Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vt., and many powerful democrats in the Vermont legislature have repeatedly stated their support for wind energy.
The Sheffield turbines are expected to keep spinning for at least 20 years. The company predicted that with proper maintenance, the machines could generate power even longer.
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