WINDHAM – The world’s largest wind-power producer is laying groundwork for what could be the first commercial turbine development in Windham County.
Iberdrola Renewables, the U.S. division of Spain-based Iberdrola S.A., has issued notice of a pending application to place two meteorological-testing towers in the town of Windham and one such tower in Grafton.
Those towers will allow the company to determine whether to pursue construction of a wind farm of undetermined size on 5,000 acres of land owned by New Hampshire-based Meadowsend Timberlands Limited.
“Our goal would be to have a sense by the spring or summer of next year of whether there can be a project,” said Jenny Briot, a senior business developer for Iberdrola Renewables.
In an interview Tuesday, Briot touted wind turbines as a “source of local, clean, renewable energy” that also could generate construction jobs and local tax revenue in Windham County.
But wind power also is controversial in Vermont, and the proposal likely will face some local opposition.
In Windham, a meeting on the project is scheduled for 7 p.m. on July 11 at the town’s elementary school. Mary Boyer, who chairs the town’s Selectboard, confirmed that the town has regulations restricting turbine development.
“We carefully drafted and approved a town plan that prohibits commercial wind development on our ridgelines,” Boyer said. “And our intention is to uphold our town plan.”
Grafton officials are researching what their regulations might say about wind power, and they’re considering setting up an informational meeting as well, Selectboard Chairman Al Sands said.
“At this point, the board feels it’s worth finding out more information,” Sands said.
Iberdrola and Meadowsend representatives already have met with Selectboards in both Windham and Grafton.
“We’re trying to be proactive here,” said Jeremy Turner, a managing forester with Meadowsend.
However, it ultimately will fall on the Vermont Public Service Board to decide whether meteorological-testing towers can be constructed on the property, which also stretches into Townshend.
Iberdrola and Meadowsend have given 30-day public notice of their intent to apply to the state board for a certificate of public good so that the testing towers can be installed.
“After July 5, we can submit our application,” Briot said.
The galvanized-steel testing towers will stand almost 197 feet tall and will be arranged “in a roughly north-south orientation over approximately 2.2 miles of the plateau,” the company’s notice states.
But project administrators say the towers’ impact will be slight. They will stand adjacent to an electric-transmission line corridor that will serve as a means of access, as will existing logging roads, the notice says.
The structures need no foundation, and supporting guy lines “will only require minimal removal of trees,” administrators wrote.
The towers would gather meteorological data for three years. But it may take only a year or so to determine whether the site is suitable for wind turbines.
And Briot said there is no guarantee that the results will be favorable for Iberdrola.
“What we’re focused on right now is, is there an opportunity here for a project or not?” she said.
If company representatives like what they see, they would go forward with applications for a full-scale wind farm. Briot said it is far too early to determine how large that site may be or how many turbines it might host.
“At this point, we’re at what’s considered to be the earliest stages of development,” she said.
Permitting for turbines also would be up to the PSB. But John Beling, director of public advocacy for the Vermont Department of Public Service, said the Public Service Board looks at each project on a case-by-case basis.
“It doesn’t look at them in a vacuum,” Beling said. “There are ways in which town plans are involved.”
The board considers several factors in a town’s master plan including aesthetics, community standards and the orderly development of the region, Beling said.
And officials said towns have legal standing in the board’s proceedings. In fact, in Newark, town residents are challenging the erection of a meteorological tower proposed to collect data for a potential wind farm.
So backers of the Windham project have been busy trying to drum up local support. In addition to meetings with Grafton and Windham Selectboards, Briot and Turner also sat down with Bob Allen, chief executive officer of Windham Foundation in Grafton.
“At this stage, there is a lot to learn, but we will always support an open dialogue of a new idea,” Allen said. “As our mission is to promote Vermont’s rural communities, we are happy to be a convener to all interested parties.”
Chris Campany, Windham Regional Commission’s executive director, also has met with Briot and Turner regarding the testing towers.
He said the commission will work with affected towns to discuss how the project fits with their plans. It’s also important to determine whether the project fits with the orderly development of Windham County, he said.
In the meantime, the commission is hoping to start a discussion in the county about wind farms.
“We are working with the Agency of Natural Resources and the Department of Public Service to arrange a panel discussion for any municipal officials and the general public to talk about how to participate in the process,” Campany said.
The date for that discussion has not yet been set.
Sands supports a similar idea, saying Grafton’s town administrator has sent a request to the Windham Regional Commission for assistance in setting up such a session.
“We’re looking for facts” about wind power, Sands said. “You can get on the Internet and find stuff one way or the other, but anybody can post anything on the Internet.”
For Turner, wind power is a no-brainer. He said Meadowsend is a family-owned company that is the third-largest private landowner in Vermont.
But simply managing land and timber harvests is “an old model that we feel isn’t as solid as it had been,” Turner said. “And so we’re looking at options.”
One of those options is hosting wind turbines. Meadowsend already has experience in this arena, as the company owns the land on which the 16-turbine, 40-megawatt Sheffield Wind project operates in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
In addition to the turbines’ financial benefits for Meadowsend, wind development also makes it more feasible for the company to conserve large tracts of land, Turner said.
“That’s our ultimate goal with this property – to preserve this property,” he said of the Windham/Grafton tract.
The size of that property is one attractive factor for Iberdrola, as is the presence of the transmission-line corridor – also known as the “Southern Loop” – operated by Vermont Electric Power Co.
Kerrick Johnson, spokesman for Velco, said it’s understandable that a company would want to build a wind farm in close proximity to a transmission line.
But to connect to the grid, a developer first must get permission from ISO New England, which regulates and monitors the New England power grid.
“Rules are in place to insure system reliability so that there isn’t any damage done when you connect a new generator, regardless of what fuel source that generator uses,” Johnson said.
Nevertheless, he said, there are no technical reasons why the wind farm – if it is eventually built – cannot be connected to the Southern Loop.
Briot said Iberdrola has not yet been in touch with ISO New England.
“It’s too early at this point,” she said. “But we will.”