NEWARK – Word first came to this Northeast Kingdom hill town on March 7. The eyes of a New Hampshire wind energy company had alighted on the Hawk Rock ridgeline.
Within 16 days, Newark’s planning commission had dispatched a letter informing Seneca Mountain Wind that a temporary wind-measuring tower on the ridge would not conform to the town plan. Within six weeks, residents had organized an opposition group and begun weekly meetings.
By mid-May, more than half the town’s registered voters had signed a petition opposing the developer’s plans, which could lead to a 35turbine wind farm in Newark, Brighton and Ferdinand.
“Getting involved early, that’s the key, we’ve been told,” said Noreen Hession, co-chairwoman of the opposition group, Newark Neighbors United. “My home is under attack, my way of life is under attack.
Everything I’ve worked for 20 years is at risk. ” The quick, almost visceral, response to Seneca Mountain Wind among Newark residents sends a message: Despite state policy that favors wind development, the fight over mountaintop turbines in Vermont may just have begun.
The Public Service Board last rejected a commercial project in 2006. Four wind farms in a row have been approved; the 16-turbine Sheffield Wind is up and running; projects in Lowell, Milton and Readsboro are under construction or have permits.
Companies are actively exploring five projects: in Newark and neighboring Brighton and Ferdinand; on Ricker Mountain in Bolton; on a Derby farm; on the Grandpa’s Knob ridge outside Rutland; and on hills in Grafton and Windham. Developers hold leases or options on other ridgelines where past plans for four or five wind projects could be revived.
Nevertheless, recent signs indicate that the path from mountain breeze to kilowatt-hours is not going to get any easier:
In some places, as in Newark, local opponents have learned from defeats in Sheffield and Lowell. They are organizing earlier and pressing local selectboards and planning commissions to join the opposition to protect local ridgelines. In Derby, opponents turned wind development into an international issue, with protests in Stanstead, Quebec over two turbines proposed for farmland close to Canada. As a result, Encore Redevelopment of Burlington announced late last month it was canceling one turbine and would delay permit applications for the second until 2013.
In Rutland County, the state Agency of Natural Resources has signaled its potential opposition to a 20-turbine project on Grandpa’s Knob proposed by Reunion Power of Manchester. In a strongly worded letter, the agency told the company it appears the project would unduly damage the environment in ways the agency does not believe can be mitigated.
Vermont’s electric grid also poses a challenge to wind developers in some parts of the state: In the case of the Newark- Brighton project, the Vermont Electric Power Co. has told the developer its transmission grid in the Northeast Kingdom cannot accommodate more industrial wind projects without upgrades.
The politics of wind may be shifting.
Four Northeast Kingdom senators made a bid to enact a two-year moratorium on utility-scale wind projects in April. The idea was defeated but won 11 votes in the 30-member Senate. Last month, the executive committee of the Northeastern Vermont Development Association, the region’s planning commission, recommended a three-year moratorium.
Gov. Peter Shumlin remains a strong supporter of utility-scale wind development but recently added, “We don’t want wind on every mountain by any means.”
He singled out the Northeast Kingdom as a place that should not have a “disproportionate amount” of wind development.
“A number of factors seem to be converging to slow the wind monster to a crawl,” Annette Smith of Vermonters for a Clean Environment said hopefully. Her group opposes utility-scale wind projects and serves as a resource for local opponents.
Project developers point to polls that show a substantial majority of Vermonters – 70 percent in a recent WCAX survey – support wind turbines on ridgelines. Wind executives say they are encouraged by the Public Service Board’s willingness to approve commercial wind projects and by state policies that favor renewables.
“Absolutely,” said Jack Kenworthy, CEO of the company seeking to put a wind-testing tower in Newark. “Obtaining permits is a long and expensive process, millions of dollars and multiple years.
That is not something you do with private investment dollars unless you believe there is a fair shot that a good project can get permits.”
None of the evolving factors in the wind debate – local opposition, natural resource concerns, transmission constraints – have been sufficient in the years since 2006 to persuade the Public Service Board that the impacts of a utilityscale wind project outweigh the renewable energy benefits it generates.
Yet all these potential objections are present, to a greater or lesser degree, in Newark. The community thus offers another test of whether wind developers can rebut determined opponents and overcome seemingly daunting barriers.
Newark, a community of 581, sits on a series of high hills in a remote area north of Lyndonville. Looking west from some of those hills, residents can see the turbines of Vermont’s first 21st century wind farm in neighboring Sheffield.
The eastern view from many roads is dominated by a ridge of low forested hills: Walker Mountain, Hawk Rock, Packer Mountain.
Two companies, Eolian Renewable Energy of Portsmouth, N.H., and turbine manufacturer Nordex USA, envision a line of 10 wind turbines on the ridge. Another 25 turbines would stand in a long, curving string farther east, on Seneca Mountain and adjacent hills in the towns of Ferdinand and Brighton, where opposition has not been as vocal.
Eolian’s proposal has supporters in Newark.
“In general I believe that it’s real important to get away from fossil fuels, and wind energy is a great solution,” said lawyer Jill Mather, one of those who has spoken up.
So far, the two companies are seeking Public Service Board permits only for four wind-measuring towers, one of them in Newark, to supplement previously gathered data. It’s possible only a few months of data would be needed, Kenworthy said.
He has been clear that the companies believe a 90-megawatt wind project is possible and permittable in a few years.
That was enough for Mark Whitworth and Noreen Hession. The kitchen windows of their old farmhouse look out over gardens and forest to Packer Mountain less than a mile away.
“Sixty days ago, I’d never heard of any of this,” Whitworth said. “Since then, it’s been a fulltime job.”
Hession, a program manager at a hightech Massachusetts company, began Newark Neighbors United with Ben Bangs, a lifelong resident who mows hay, cuts wood and makes furniture for a living.
Hession and Bangs seem to have little in common but they agree on one thing: “They are going to change the character of Newark,” Bangs said of the wind developers. “So many people I talk to, at the dump, around town, say it’s not worth the money they would throw at us.”
Newark Neighbors United’s opposition has focused thus on familiar objections that so far have not convinced the Public Service Board. They include contentions – hotly disputed by wind energy supporters – that wind turbines create undesirable noise, damage people’s health and drive down nearby property values.
More than 300 people, including 189 of 359 registered Newark voters, signed Newark Neighbors United’s petition opposing the meteorological installation, or met tower as it is called.
Group members held a low-key protest outside a Seneca Mountain information session at the town school in late May, a tactic mirrored by wind opponents in Derby and in four Rutland County towns where a Manchester developer wants to erect turbines.
“I don’t think people here would be nearly as opposed if they had not seen Sheffield and seen pictures of all the destruction in Lowell,” said Whitworth.
He was referring to photographs of construction and mountaintop clearing for Green Mountain Power’s 21-turbine wind development on Lowell Mountain.
Whitworth has not joined Newark Neighbors United, though his wife is one of its leaders. He said he tries to maintain some distance because he sits on the Newark Planning Commission.
In May, he and other commissioners voted unanimously to ask the Public Service Board not to permit Eolian’s meteorological installation, or met tower as it is called.
That is one difference between Newark and other towns where some residents have unsuccessfully opposed wind projects: In Newark, objections come from some of the town’s official voices.
State law requires the PSB to weigh whether a proposed energy project will “unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region with due consideration having been given to the recommendations of the municipal and regional planning commissions…” Whitworth helped draft the Planning Commission’s 10-page letter to the Public Service Board, intended to rebut Eolian’s argument that its met tower fits with the town plan.
There is a conflict, the town commission wrote, because the local plan begins with a vision of a “rural town with a beautiful natural setting” that the community “intends to protect and preserve.” Eolian’s plan would interfere with orderly development by discouraging potential buyers from choosing Newark land, the commission asserts.
Newark’s selectboard also is seeking a formal role in the met tower case.
“The Planning Commission doesn’t believe this fits the town plan, and we support them,” Selectboard Chairman Mike Channon said. “It’s their job to defend the town plan.”
The local debate is in its infancy. One factor that has been critical in other towns – what tax revenue the town might gain from any future wind turbines – is still unknown.
Hession, for one, hopes early opposition in Newark might lead to early defeat or withdrawal of Eolian’s proposal.
“I don’t want to spend the next months to five years waiting for Seneca to collect data,” she said. “I’ve already lost a lot of sleep over this.”
Transmission capacity shortage
The state Agency of Natural Resources and Vermont’s statewide utility, the Vermont Electric Power Co., are trying to give wind developers warning of potential barriers to development.
With Seneca Mountain Wind – and other wind projects in the wings – there is good news and potentially bad news.
As part of its long-term planning, VELCO is trying to identify places where more energy generation is needed and is compatible with the transmission grid. The northeastern corner of Vermont is not one of those places.
The draft of VELCO’s 2012 long-range transmission plan is unequivocal: “The northern portion of the state, where the wind generation potential is relatively high, lacks sufficient transmission to accommodate additional utility-scale generation and the addition of new utility- scale projects will likely require transmission reinforcements.”
VELCO spokesman Kerrick Johnson said of Eolian, “We were very clear with them: It was buyer beware. You will likely have to absorb the additional cost of transmission for your generator.”
Eolian’s Kenworthy said he is hopeful a study by ISO-New England, the regional transmission organization, will find ways to “alleviate some of the transmission constraints.”
ANR issues early warnings
“It is unclear at this time if your proposal, or any landscape-scale development, could proceed at this site without posing undue adverse impact on the natural environment,” the Agency of Natural Resources wrote to the developers of Seneca Mountain Wind in April. Senior Planner Bill Coster cited possible impacts on streams, wetlands and conservation lands. Seneca Mountain lies inside the state’s second largest habitat block, a relatively unfragmented forest rich in flora and fauna.
Kenworthy, the Eolian CEO, said it is his company’s “current view that we can build a project without undue adverse impacts, and that the benefits would outweigh the impacts.”
“I wouldn’t call this a red flag,” Coster said. The agency needs more information, he said. Instead, the letter is part of the agency’s effort to alert developers early in the permit process to potential permitting roadblocks.
Early review led the agency to a much sterner stance in the case of the Grandpa’s Knob proposal for up to 20 turbines along several miles of ridgeline west of Rutland.
That set of hills has “exceptional ecological significance,” agency lawyer Jon Groveman wrote to Reunion Power of Manchester. Because of its location at the northern end of the Taconics, the area provides “an anchor for helping to maintain ecological connectivity in both east-west and north-south directions.”
“ANR does not see a way to effectively mitigate the undue adverse effects on the Rare and Irreplaceable Natural Area and on the natural environment in general,” Groveman wrote.
Reunion Power CEO Steve Eisenberg emphasized that his company hasn’t developed a final site plan for turbines and roadways, nor completed its environmental studies of the ridge.
“I understand the arguments and appreciate the points about connectivity,” he said. “Looking at what we know today, we are hopeful this project will be something we can go forward with.”
Coster said the agency hopes to make a map giving wind developers a way to screen potential locations by making an inventory of natural resources.
“This is not a wind map, it’s not a red light/green light of where wind projects should happen or not happen, but it is the most exhaustive inventory to date,” he said. “It is an initial screen for developers about which areas will and will not be difficult to permit.”
Why the fight goes on
Ben Bangs and Noreen Hession climbed through a field of grass, high on a hill behind the house where Bangs’ parents have lived for 43 years. The late afternoon sun set the distant Hawk Rock ridgeline aglow.
The state’s new natural resource map will inform wind developers where rare plants grow, where Canada lynx prowl, where little headwater streams rise in the hills.
What cannot be charted on any map is the intensity of neighbors’ response when wind developers come to town.
The map can’t predict whether wind energy will be embraced by a town majority, as it was in Lowell, or provoke widespread opposition.
No map can capture what it is about the unbroken mountain landscape that people see and value and are willing to fight for years to defend.
Bangs thinks about Center Pond, a quiet place where loons sometimes call and schoolchildren use nature trails on town land.
“When you are at Center Pond, you don’t hear anything except birds singing and brooks running,” he said. He worries that turbine blades turning on the ridgeline above will destroy the quiet.
“There’s no silence anymore,” he said. “Before, I was not as against these things as I am now. We are net exporters of power up here. They won’t shut any power plants if this is built. Is it worth destroying these ridgelines for that?”
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