MILTON – The view from David Armstrong’s Milton yard has changed in recent weeks. Tall, gleaming white wind turbines are sprouting from the top of Georgia Mountain behind his neighborhood.
“I’m for them,” said Armstrong as he stood in his driveway last week. “It’s a first step in the right direction. We could have a coal plant or a failing nuclear power plant.”
“They’re ugly,” said Tom Hall, who lives downhill from the turbines on Ted Road, which has become the access road to the project. “They’re ruining the Vermont landscape.”
In the works for six years, the first commercial-scale wind project in Chittenden and Franklin counties is now becoming a reality. By the end of last week 21/2 turbines had been erected as part of the four-turbine Georgia Mountain Community Wind Project.
All four should be in place within two weeks, said Martha Staskus, project manager, meeting an end-of-the-year deadline for 30 percent federal incentives on the $28 million project.
Standing 426 feet tall sprouting 160-foot blades, the four turbines will stretch across the mountaintop, two each in the towns of Milton and Georgia. They are slated to produce 27-million kilowatt hours of electricity a year that Georgia Mountain will sell to the Burlington Electric Department.
David Blittersdorf, the renewable energy developer who is 80 percent owner of the Georgia Mountain Community Wind Project, said he believes criticism of the project is dying down as Vermonters become accustomed to projects in Sheffield and Lowell and begin to get a look at his project’s towers.
“People are getting used to it,” agreed Staskus, who is vice president of Northeast Wind of Waterbury Center, which is a contractor to the project. She said she often receives positive comments from people in the area.
Not everyone is getting used to it. Across the state, the debate over wind is as alive as ever. Several legislators are planning to push next year for a two-year moratorium on wind projects. Proposed projects in Rutland County and the Northeast Kingdom have seen vehement pre-emptive opposition.
Some neighbors of the Georgia Mountain project have had issues with various aspects of the project – from complaints about stray flyrock produced during blasting to disagreements about who owns trees that were cut down. A settlement between some neighbors and the project is pending before the Public Service Board.
Hall said the blasting shook his house, the construction prevents him from hunting on his land and trees were cut down that the project claimed were on its land, but he claims were on his land. He said he feels hamstrung by a lack of resources to fight the project.
“It’s been one endless nightmare for the neighbors,” said Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, who has worked with them and said dealing with the project has driven families apart.
Smith said the Georgia Mountain project has unfolded the same way wind projects in Sheffield and Lowell did, with upset neighbors outgunned by the developers and nearly powerless in navigating a complicated Public Service Board process.
Waiting to hear
The turbines hadn’t started turning on Georgia Mountain as of last week, so the jury is still out on how they will sound.
Smith said neighbors of the Lowell project, which recently started operating, complained to her of headaches and nausea from the noise of the turbines Thanksgiving Day. A family near the Sheffield project is dealing with similar problems, she said. Smith said she is raising money to buy noise monitoring devices to independently measure noise from the Sheffield, Lowell and Georgia projects.
Hall said he’s heard nothing but bad things about the noise similar projects produce.
Cynthia Cook, another neighbor to the Georgia Mountain project, can see the turbines from her house when there are no leaves on the trees. Though she was once involved in opposing the project, she said she has come to accept that they are there.
Cook said said she’s heard mixed reports about what kind of noise to expect. “We’re going to wait and see,” she said of the noise. Visually, she said, “They’re different. They stand out.”
Blittersdorf argues that the opposition ignores the need for increased locally produced, clean electricity to replace fossil fuels for heating and transportation. “Liquid fuels are going to be scarcer and scarcer,” he said.
Armstrong, the Milton resident whose Hunting Ridge Lane house looks out onto the turbines, said that’s a selling point for him. “It’s unfortunate that a byproduct of the process is what they’re doing to the hillside,” he said, but he favors decreasing reliance on fossil fuels.
Blittersdorf owns AllEarth Renewables solar company in Williston, but he said this project is separate. Blittersdorf, founder of NRG Systems wind measurement manufacturer in Hinesburg but no longer an owner of that company, said he was initially dubious that there was enough wind on relatively small Georgia Mountain to make the project work.
“I said there’s no wind there,” Blittersdorf said. The 1,440-foot elevation is typically not high enough, he said, but land owner Jim Harrison proved otherwise with testing. “I was humbled,” Blittersdorf said.
The location appears to be clear enough from the height of the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains to let the wind whip through. Blittersdorf pointed to the trees on the mountain all leaning north, an indication that a steady wind blows in one direction. On a clear day, he said, the Georgia Mountain towers look straight across Lake Champlain at the 65 Altona wind towers in Clinton County, N.Y.
Harrison, who owns Harrison Concrete Construction, had been working on developing the site as a wind project for several years. Blittersdorf became involved in 2011 to make it work financially, which included investing heavily in the project himself.
‘Disaster’ coming for industry
Blittersdorf emphasizes the local aspects of the project. Thirty-one Vermont businesses have been involved in the project’s construction, he noted. He said he insisted on financing the project through Vermont-owned Merchant’s Bank, making it what he calls the biggest renewable energy project in Vermont financed by a Vermont bank. Alongside the road to the turbines, extended from an existing cell tower road, Harrison runs lines to his maple syrup operation.
The first turbine to go up was the most difficult because it’s the highest, up a steep 20 percent incline gravel road, and needed to go up before the threat of winter weather, Staskus said.
Crews were working last week wiring the inside of the second turbine and delicately erecting the third turbine, fitting the 71,000-pound nacelle component to the top of the tower with the use of monstrous crane. Three blades go on each turbines, each weighing 23,000 pounds.
By mid-December, all four towers should be standing, wired and connected to the grid, Staskus said.
The federal incentives the project will receive if it is completed by Dec. 31, which were part of the federal stimulus package, come to an end this year, as do other federal renewable energy incentives. Blittersdorf said he believes incentives will resume at some point, but in the meantime the wind industry will be hurting. “Next year is a disaster for the wind industry,” he said. “It will restart but it’s not going to be instantaneous.”
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