Peering through the trees in Steve Therrien’s driveway, the white flash of a wind turbine blade whisks through the air. From this vantage the nearby towers are barely visible through the forest.
Although sound studies conducted by the developer First Wind show the noise level from the Sheffield Wind project is below acceptable levels set by state regulators, Therrien says it still wakes him up some nights.
Therrien lives with his wife and two children in their modest home less than a mile from the largest operating wind farm in the state. Sheffield hosts 16 turbines, each 420 feet tall.
He is part of an growing vocal contingent of citizens who are speaking out against wind projects in Vermont.
“A little humming, I could deal with that,” Therrien said. “When it’s waking you up in the middle of the night, you know something’s wrong.”
Citizens groups that oppose wind power projects, such as Energize Vermont and Vermonters for a Clean Environment, say their focus is on citizen involvement, but their critics say theres is a well-funded and dedicated effort to stop all wind energy projects in the state.
Therrien has been something of a squeaky wheel for the Sheffield project. He says he wasn’t opposed to the project until he filled out a survey by the group Vermonters for a Clean Environment. Shortly afterward, he heard from its executive director, Annette Smith, and he has complained publicly about the project since.
Therrien said he didn’t oppose the project during the yearlong construction period. Once the project began operating in October, he said he began to have concerns.
“The noise coming off these towers sounds just like equipment running up there and I’m going to hear this for another 20 years,” he said. “Well I’m not going to because I’m going to move.”
A growing number of residents like Therrien who live near planned and operating wind projects are raising concerns about the influx of turbines on the state’s ridge lines.
At least 14 industrial wind projects with towers of similar size (about 400 feet tall) and with electric generation outputs of varying amounts from 100 kilowatts up to a 100-megawatt project in Newark are either planned, under construction or already operating in Vermont.
Here is a list of industrial wind projects in the state, with the name of the project, its location, how many turbines it has or has planned, the power capacity and the developer:
• Sheffield Wind, Sheffield, 16 turbines, 40 megawatts, First Wind.
• Searsburg wind farm, Searsburg, 11 turbines, 6 megawatts, Green Mountain Power.
• Kingdom Community Wind, Lowell, 21 turbines, 63 megawatts, Green Mountain Power.
• Georgia Mountain Community Wind, Milton/Georgia, four turbines, 12 megawatts, Jim Harrison/David Blittersdorf.
Proposed or in application process
• Grandpa’s Knob, West Rutland/Castleton/Hubbardton/Pittsford, 20 turbines, 50 megawatts, Reunion Power/Nordex.
• Vermont Community Wind Farm, Ira/Poultney/West Rutland, 32-42 turbines, 80 megawatts, Enel.
• Manchester/Sunderland, 8 turbines, 24 megawatts, Endless Energy.
• Deerfield Wind, Readsboro, 15 2-megawatt turbines, 34 megawatts, Iberdrola.
• Derby Line, two 2.3-megawatt turbines, 4.6 megawatts, Encore Redevelopment.
• Newark/Brighton/Ferdinand, 30 3-megawatt turbines, 60-100 megawatts, Eolian Wind Energy & Nordex.
• Eden, BNE Energy, measuring tower constructed.
• Waitsfield, 20 2- to 3-megawatt turbines, 30-60 megawatt capacity, Citizens Energy.
• Londonderry, 20 2-megawatt turbines, 40-megawatt capacity, Volkswind.
• Bolton/Ricker Mountain, Bolton, measuring tower constructed, 6-7 turbines, Green Mountain Clean Energy.
Nearly all of the projects, small and large, have met resistance from individual community members or statewide citizens groups. Opponents have sought out media attention, and public meetings in the Northeast Kingdom and southern Vermont have seen vehement resistance from some locals.
That outspoken opposition, however, contradicts polls showing widespread support for in-state renewable energy. Green Mountain Power customer surveys conducted since 2008 consistently show that 68 percent to 72 percent of residents support wind power. A recent poll by WCAX News showed that of 607 Vermonters surveyed, 70 percent supported wind turbines on the state’s ridgelines.
Efforts to stop wind projects also run counter to the state’s policy of developing more in-state renewable projects.
In 2005, the Vermont Legislature created the Sustainably Priced Energy Development Program or SPEED. The program promotes the development of in-state renewable energy projects in order to meet a goal of producing 20 percent of Vermont’s electricity with renewables by 2017.
Over the last 10 years lawmakers have developed a clear policy in favor of renewable energy projects inside the state’s borders.
Former Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, was an outspoken critic of industrial wind and his opposition resulted in a de facto moratorium on large projects.
That temporary hold on projects ended when Gov. Peter Shumlin was elected in 2009. The governor, a Democrat, has been an avid backer of the renewable industry in Vermont, and he pushed for wind development when he was in the Senate.
At a recent press conference Shumlin said, “I’m proud of the fact as governor we’re finally building wind in Vermont.”
In order to meet the 20 percent objective, the state has guaranteed 20-year, above-market contracts for small (less than 2.2-megawatt projects). In 2009, the Obama administration and Congress expanded clean-energy incentives for renewable energy projects, including wind farms. The federal government offers production tax credits of 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour of energy produced in the first 10 years. The tax credits particularly benefit larger businesses with more income to offset. The incentives are designed to attract investors to the projects, which require millions in up front capital and years of work before developers get a return on their investments.
In recent years, developers have taken advantage of state and federal policies and have begun to build out a number of wind projects, seemingly all at once.
Lowell: The ongoing battle in the Northeast Kingdom
Perhaps no individual project has seen as much media coverage as the Kingdom Community Wind project in Lowell.
On May 31, 2011, the Vermont Public Service Board approved a certificate of public good for the Green Mountain Power project. Construction began later that year despite an outcry from activists and neighboring landowners.
Lowell, in particular, sheds light on why communities are divided.
In a Town Meeting Day vote, Lowell residents voted 3-to-1 to endorse the Green Mountain Power project. The neighboring communities of Craftsbury and Albany opposed it. Part of that split may have been due to the fact that Lowell would receive around a half million dollars each year for 25 years, while the other towns would receive closer to $50,000.
The Lowell project has become the poster child for controversial wind projects in Vermont. Steve Wright, a former Fish and Wildlife commissioner and outspoken opponent of the project, recently took aerial photos of the ridgeline to demonstrate what he sees as the destruction of a pristine area.
Other opponents were arrested when they trespassed on the site to block construction of the turbines.
Green Mountain Power wants the $150 million, 63-megawatt facility ready for operation by the end of 2012 in order to take advantage of roughly $48 million in federal production tax credits, which could expire at the end of the year. At that point it would be the largest operating wind facility in the state.
Critics hold up a Clean Water Act violation last fall and illegal logging at the site before construction began as examples of bad environmental stewardship. Environmental groups like the Vermont Public Interest Research Group support the project because renewable power helps to reduce the amount of electricity produced with fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.
The Newark project
An even larger wind farm under consideration near Newark would produce up to 100 megawatts of power.
Currently, wind turbine manufacturer Nordex and Eolian Renewable Energy from Portsmouth, N.H., are applying to set up towers to gauge the wind capacity of a ridgeline in Newark, Brighton and other Essex County towns.
The project would be almost twice as large as the Kingdom Community Wind project in Lowell. It could mean 30 to 35 turbines 400 feet tall. Lowell will have 21 turbines.
The project received a negative reaction from the Newark Planning Commission. A letter from the commission states that a citizens group in the town garnered 300 signatures opposing the project. There are 492 residents in the town.
Wind projects in the Northeast Kingdom raised a brief stir in the Legislature this year also.
Four lawmakers from the Northeast Kingdom voted in favor of a two-year moratorium on wind projects in the state. That effort failed, but Republican Sen. Joe Benning from Lyndonville said the fight is not over.
Benning said he is opposed to the Newark project and other large wind farms in the Kingdom.
“I’m opposed to any industrial wind projects at a time when we have more than enough power on the New England grid to supply power we need,” Benning said.
He said the power from wind projects is not needed in the Northeast Kingdom, and if the more populous and prosperous Chittenden County demands power, projects should be built there.
Jack Kenworthy, CEO of Eolian Renewable Energy, said it would likely be at least two and a half years before the project could begin construction.
He said the project site is attractive because it already has existing roads and is large enough that turbines can be situated far enough away from homes to avoid bothering people with noise.
Kenworthy said he is well aware of the concerns of some residents. He said it is early in the process, however, and while a community group may have been able to rile up some opposition, he hopes to be able to educate people about the real effects of turbines rather than the unease that some people can feel when they are bombarded with information about the downsides of wind turbines.
“We’re trying to address people’s concerns in a productive way,” he said. “We don’t discount but don’t consider as final the signatures that were acquired by local groups. There just hasn’t been a lot of time to get accurate information in people’s hands.”
On the one hand, Kenworthy said, people accuse wind developers of presenting one-sided information since many studies are funded by developers. “There is a lot of misinformation out there,” he said, often coming from opponents of wind projects. It’s a challenge to have a reasonable dialogue once emotions begin to run high, he said.
Strife at the border
While the larger project in the Northeast Kingdom lurks in the background, another much smaller project in Derby Line has caused even more controversy.
Encore Redevelopment, a Burlington development company, plans to erect two 2.2-megawatt turbines on two farms on the Vermont-Canada border. Project manager Chad Farrell said his project has seen the same resistance as larger projects like Lowell.
“We are unfortunately facing the same opposition that much larger projects are facing, but these are much smaller, which is making it much more difficult to move forward with Vermont’s interest of developing in-state renewable energy,” Farrell said.
The Derby Line project has seen opposition on both sides of the border.
Vicky Farrand-Lewis, who lives in Derby near the two proposed turbines, said she is concerned about the infrasound and low frequency noise the machines could produce as well as reduced property values.
“For me it’s not just one thing,” Farrand-Lewis said. “The scale and siting of this project is wrong.”
She said 1,000 residents in a 2.5-mile radius will be affected. Farrand-Lewis said the developers have been dishonest about the amount of outreach they have made to affected community members.
The two turbines, which would sit on two different farms, have created disputes across the border, with the mayor of Stanstead, Quebec, threatening to cut off water to the U.S. side and a lingering dispute over which country’s law governing setbacks applies.
Paul Stuart, a city councillor in Stanstead said more residents on the Quebec side will be affected by the noise and aesthetics of the turbines than on the U.S. side.
“I think the reason there’s more opposition over here is because it’s going to affect more homes than it is in on the U.S. side within a 2-kilometer circle,” he said.
The town of Stanstead rejected the projected, but the Derby select board has yet to take it up for a vote.
Dick Saudek, former chair of the Vermont Public Service Board, is representing the town as its attorney.
He said Derby is trying to decide what its stance will ultimately be. He said if the town and the Public Service Board disagree, the board will prevail, but it will likely tread carefully in approving a project the town does not want.
Saudek said the controversy in other parts of the state appears to have affected the town’s reaction in Derby.
“The misgivings many people had with Lowell have influenced the thinking of people in Derby and brought many issues to the fore,” he said. “Many of these issues have been decided in other cases, but it’s a developing science. It’s hard to say the extent to which issues may come back to haunt developers.”
Southern Vermont and Chittenden County
In the past weeks and months, developers in various parts of the state have engaged in heated meetings with local communities. At meetings in southern Vermont, protesters voiced opposition to protest a 20-turbine proposed wind farm on the Grandpa’s Knob ridgeline in Proctor, West Rutland, Hubbardtown and Castleton.
Another project in the Green Mountain National Forest in the towns of Readsboro and Searsburg, has spawned a lawsuit against the federal government over effects on wildlife.
The Grandpa’s Knob project, proposed by Reunion Power, raised concerns from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, which says it is planned on a section of the Taconic Range that is considered “a rare, irreplaceable natural area” by the state.
A 10-megawatt project on Georgia Mountain in Milton and Georgia has rattled some neighbors. That four-turbine project is funded in part by renewable energy entrepreneur David Blittersdorf, who made headlines when his companies received millions in tax credits from the state’s Clean Energy Development Fund. He had been appointed to the board by Gov. Peter Shumlin and then later resigned in 2009. That same year, he became one of Shumlin’s biggest campaign supporters, contributing $28,000 to the governor’s election effort. Blittersdorf started NRG Systems, a wind measurement technology company, and is now CEO of AllEarth Renewables. He declined to comment for this story.
Neighbors of the project expressed concerns earlier this month when construction began and they were not notified.
For Fletcher resident Heidi FitzGerald, the issue is the same as for other projects in the state. She says the four-turbine project will be too close – 150 feet – from her 83-year-old mother’s property line.
FitzGerald has been working with neighbors to fight the project.
She said the policy of the state appears to be “going green, at any cost basically.”
“We don’t have that much land here in Vermont, and our mountains are some of the most important parts of our state,” she said. “Putting industrial turbines on top of ridgelines doesn’t seem to be what we should be about.”
Martha Staskus, the spokesperson for the Georgia Mountain Community Wind project, is also chair of the board of Renewable Energy Vermont, a trade group for the renewable energy industry.
Staskus has been measuring wind and working on projects in Vermont for more than 25 years. She said the reason things seem to be coming to a head with wind energy is that after long permitting processes, projects are starting to be built.
Many potentially viable spots are not being considered for development, she said.
“If you look at all the windy places in Vermont and what’s actually going in, it’s a small percentage,” she said.
Despite what a very vocal opposition across the state says, Staskus said, citizen involvement in wind projects is quite robust.
She said the Legislature’s goal of more renewable energy, including wind, is a reflection of what people want. She said the opposition to projects comes from a very small minority of Vermonters who make a lot of noise and are very effective at steering the media.
“I think there is a very small in numbers, loud in voice, well-funded, dedicated organization that’s looking to move their agenda forward,” Staskus said. “That is to not have wind turbines in Vermont. Poll after poll and survey after survey comes back again and again with Vermonters supporting in-state renewable generation. The Legislature responded from that perspective.”
The Georgia Mountain project has its license in hand and needs to be up and running by the end of the year to take advantage of federal money.
Persistent opposition appears to come from numerous wind projects stems from residents who live near projects and two well-organized groups that reach out to local residents.
One group, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, says it is not against wind energy.
Annette Smith, the executive director of VCE, has been working with the organization for 14 years.
“From our perspective, it’s not about opposing one technology or being in favor of another,” she said. “The first job is making sure the public has a say. We advocate for a collaborative stakeholder processes.”
One problem wind developers have, Smith said, is they fail to engage local communities adequately.
Smith cut her teeth fighting a gas pipeline project and later moved on to industrial-scale wind projects. She said her group supports smaller, community-scale projects.
According to IRS 990 records, Vermonters for a Clean Environment received $155,794 in private contributions in 2010. Between 2006 and 2010, it received $590,484 in gifts, grants, contributions and membership fees.
“We support community-based projects of all sorts,” she said. For example, she said Vermonters would probably accept the smaller turbines that exist at a project in Searsburg.
Smith said for any sort of project, there needs to be a stakeholder process where community members can air their concerns and actually have a say in how and where projects should be built.
She claims her organization does not have an agenda.
Lukas Snelling, executive director of Energize Vermont, an organization that has challenged numerous wind projects, says likewise his group is not anti-wind.
“We’re a pro-renewable energy organization,” he said. “We just want to see it done right. We want to do the right projects in the right places. It’s about finding a process that facilitates appropriate-scale renewable energy.”
Snelling said one concern is that developers appear to be driven by profits and ignoring local concerns when it comes to some wind projects.
“We’re really in a gold rush for this,” he said.
The “gold rush” Snelling refers to is the federal grants and tax credits provided by the federal government for wind and solar projects.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy Loan Programs Office, the Granite Reliable wind project in Coos, N.H., received a partial guarantee of a $168.9 million loan from the federal government.
A November New York Times article article outlines how similar guarantees, requiring customers to pay higher rates, can guarantee private investors profits for years to come. But federal and state officials say the assistance makes sense both environmentally and economically to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost the economy.
Vermont’s unique renewable energy program in particular incentivizes in-state projects over out-of-state by allowing utilities to sell “renewable energy credits” from projects like wind farms. Other states in New England have “renewable portfolio standards” that require utilities to purchase set amounts of renewable power. They can do this by buying it directly from renewable sources or by purchasing these credits. Vermont utilities do not have to buy or account for the credits, so they are able to sell them out of state, keeping the costs of projects down.
The subsidies for renewable energy projects are a talking point for wind opponents, who say the industry should be able to stand on its own.
On the national level, one accountability group has even traced some local efforts against wind and solar energy to ultra-conservative groups with financial ties to the fossil fuel industry.
Industry groups say much of the opposition comes from a sense of hysteria, often times brought on by inaccurate information.
Gabrielle Stebbins, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, said opponents of wind projects will often tout issues like “shadow flicker” – where turbine blades cast shadows through windows of neighboring properties, low frequency noise and water quality issues from construction runoff.
“The most frustrating thing is that so much of the information being provided is skewed or inaccurate and doesn’t represent the facts,” she said. “The facts are not always as compelling as things that get people impassioned.”
Proponents of wind projects in the state say Sheffield Wind in the Northeast Kingdom is an example of a successful project with minimal effects on the environment or neighbors.
A report by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources found that construction of the Sheffield Wind Project had no adverse impact on the water quality and aquatic life of cold-water streams near the project.
The project also remained below sound levels set by the Public Service Board.
Josh Bagnato, the environmental permitting and compliance officer of Sheffield Wind, said the company went above and beyond to ensure there were no impacts on wildlife either. He said it took account of beech trees to make sure enough bear habitat remained, conserved 2,700 acres and studied curtailing the turbines to protect bats.
Much of the controversy between wind opponents and proponents boils down to which scientific studies are used. On the one hand, developers often hire their own consultants to do studies on things like low-frequency and other noise effects. A study conducted in Falmouth, Mass., that was partially funded by an opponent of a local wind farm, found that low-frequency noises from nearby wind turbines produced adverse health effects, such as sleep deprivation and anxiety. Town officials opted to shut down one of those turbines this month.
Proponents of wind projects in Vermont say much of the opposition likely comes from the fact that for many years Vermonters have not had to see where their power comes from.
Much of the power Vermonters use comes from Hydro-Quebec and other out-of-state sources. Now that the state has made the choice to push more renewables in-state, Vermonters are seeing the effect of that choice.
John Lamontagne, a spokesman for First Wind, the Sheffield project developer, said opponents of projects in New England have been particularly vocal.
“Certainly, there are pockets of opposition in a lot of locations,” he said. “In Vermont, the opponents have been particularly vocal and very active in opposition to wind energy and to renewables.”
He said citizens in Hawaii, for example, are more receptive to renewable energy. They are also more directly affected by fluctuations in fossil fuel costs because most of their energy comes from fossil fuels.
Despite a widespread media campaign and plenty of outreach to disgruntled neighbors, wind opponents have seen minimal success in stopping projects. Kingdom Community Wind is in mid construction, Sheffield is up and the Georgia Mountain and Deerfield projects have certificates of public good in hand from the Public Service Board.
In its decisions, the Public Service Board has addressed issues like noise, habitat fragmentation and property values, often finding that the projects’ benefits outweigh the disadvantages.
The board’s Kingdom Community Wind order states: “While it is possible that some individual properties may experience negative value impacts as a result of the proposed project, there is no empirical basis to assume that the proposed project will have any negative impacts to aggregate town, county-wide, or regional real property values.”
Likewise, the board found, with noise and water pollution.
The board has, however, refused to approve one project. One 2006 board order, however, did find a project planned for East Mountain in East Haven would disturb too much undeveloped land.
The order begins: “The ultimate question in this proceeding … is whether the proposed project promotes the general good of the state. Answering that question for this project, and for any proposed high-elevation wind generation facility in Vermont, requires a balancing of two fundamental state policies: promoting in-state renewable resources, and protecting Vermont’s ridgelines.”
That particular project, the order said, was in the wrong place.
“While this renewable-energy project would provide undeniable benefits, those benefits would come at a significant cost: the project, with four, 329-foot-tall wind turbines, would be located in the midst of extensive lands that have been protected from development through years of effort and the expenditure of millions of dollars of public funds,” the order reads.
Environmental critics of the efforts against wind
While Energize Vermont and Vermonters for a Clean Environment focus on preserving the state’s ridgelines, at least one environmental group says aesthetics and views should not be factors in wind farm siting.
In comments on the state’s comprehensive energy plan, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group said considering stopping a project because it might affect someone’s view could effectively ban turbines on Vermont’s ridgelines.
“We need, as a state, to develop clean, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels,” the group’s comments states. “Giving, or considering giving, such weight to aesthetic concerns should not be on the table at all, given what is at stake.”
Paul Burns, VPIRG’s executive director, said his group has been working on energy issues for 40 years and has opposed its fair share of projects and practices, including the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, trash incineration and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.
Burns said he has no problem with citizens expressing concerns over specific projects and with some groups such as the Green Mountain Club, which has sounded the alarm about the possibility of lifting a wind “moratorium” on state lands.
The problem, he said is with the categorical opposition against every wind project.
“It’s human nature that people would be particularly concerned about something in their neighborhood,” he said. “The idea of people coming together to express concerns about a local issue, that’s democracy. It’s more of a problem with the coordinated campaign among a small number of groups and individuals who simply oppose all wind out of hand that has nothing to do with specific issues of any particular project. That position is, in my opinion, indefensible.”
Burns said VPIRG focuses more on broader energy policies like getting energy from a variety of clean sources. The group has not opposed any specific wind projects in the state. VPIRG’s annual revenues in 2010 were $651,226, according to Guidestar, a nonprofit reporting group. In 2009, it had $504,397 in funds and $511,917 in 2008. In addition, VPIRG has an education fund that brought in $1.85 million over that same three-year period.
Burns said critics of wind appear to be missing the big picture. While groups like Vermonters for a Clean Environment and Energize Vermont support solar projects it is not possible for residential solar to provide all the power Vermont needs and uses any time soon, he said.
If the state wants to wean itself off fossil fuels, Burns said, wind needs to be part of that portfolio.
“It’s not an either or proposition,” he said.
Is there a solution?
Wind energy portrays clearly the competing values between combatting climate change and preserving Vermont’s landscape. While there may be no one solution, a professor at Vermont Law School recommends a different approach.
Sean Nolon, a law professor who specializes in alternative dispute resolution, wrote an article on wind siting and citizen involvement.
He proposes that developers and the government should involve citizens earlier on in the process to help develop policy rather than fight projects that are already on their way toward completion.
“The premise is that citizens who are involved in developing a comprehensive wind policy will be more effective and productive participants in the siting decisions that implement those policies,” Nolon’s paper says.
The idea, he said, is that the state should first develop a policy of how much wind projects it wants and where they are appropriate.
“The model I propose starts with a statewide process to determine how much energy we want to get from renewable resources,” he said. “Then the state should decide what facilities are appropriate and where they are appropriate. Finally, once that has been done, then the state needs to provide support for municipalities and applicants with projects in those areas.”
He said one of the problems is that the Public Service Board has to look at each project on a case-by-case basis rather than through a lens that is guided by a more comprehensive state policy.
“If we want to help the Public Service Board with their decisions, we should really have a statewide or regional plan that identifies what level of renewable energy we want, what do we want renewable energy facilities to look like, what areas are appropriate sites for those facilities, and how are we going to cut back on energy from fossil fuels,” he said. “Ideally, citizens should be involved in all stages of that planning process.”
For now, tension will inevitably continue in the state over these projects.
As for his sense of public support for wind power, “People cry louder than they praise,” Nolon said.
Editor’s note: Information about VPIRG’s finances was added to this story at 7:43 a.m. May 25.
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