[Note that the people of Vermont who are directly affected by wind projects are not mentioned as a concern in this article by developers, only how helpful the regulators are. —Ed.]
Vermont’s wind power activity dates back to 1941, when the world’s first megawatt-size wind turbine was constructed at Grandpa’s Knob, in the town of Castleton. But over the last several decades, attitudes about wind power in the state have shifted, which has led to a much more rigorous permitting environment.
When it comes to development, Vermont faces some of the same challenges and constraints experienced in many other states, such as bird and bat protection, and public opposition. However, a number of factors unique to Vermont can make siting wind projects in the state a particularly complex process.
Permitting entity. Rather than funnel wind development permits through natural-resource or land-planning agencies, all wind power in Vermont is permitted through the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB), the entity that supervises the state’s public utilities. Although the board works with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and other state and federal agencies, it ultimately weighs the perceived impacts of wind projects against the potential for “public good.”
As a quasi-judicial body, the board helps to ensure that the permitting process stays more or less on track, and its prudent oversight often helps facilitate solutions to outstanding concerns. However, a common complaint is that with no end-date requirements, the process can be lengthy.
Black-bear habitat. In addition to taking measures to ensure the protection and mitigation of federal- or state-listed species – such as the Indiana bat, little brown bat and eastern small-footed bat – developers must carefully plan their sites around black-bear habitat. Although the black bear does not have legal regulatory status in the state (i.e., it is not a state-listed species), black bears are a major concern for the ANR and can be a lengthy and expensive part of the permitting process.
Unlike the established framework for curtailment and post-construction monitoring associated with bats, there is no set regulatory system for addressing impacts on black-bear habitat. Therefore, developers cannot readily budget or plan for the issue.
Currently, most developers end up characterizing the entire project area to clearly identify, map and document the potential for bear activity at the site. That means logging many labor hours walking transects and identifying every bear-scarred tree on the site. Given how costly and time-consuming this process can be, another rule that has been used is to conserve about four acres for every acre of bear habitat potentially affected.
Habitat fragmentation. For any species, habitat fragmentation is a major issue that is underdefined and open to interpretation, as is the case in many states. In Vermont, state agencies are currently working to develop general guidelines for assessing habitat fragmentation.
While a regulatory structure will undoubtedly be useful, the problem with creating blanket guidelines is that individual species experience fragmentation at different levels. Therefore, conforming to a one-size-fits-all standard could mean unnecessary time and money spent on a project, or potentially unforeseen effects on a specific species that may have been addressed by more tailored guidelines.
Natural areas. Another issue related to fragmentation is whether a project impacts “rare or irreplaceable natural areas” (RINAs). This criterion of the permitting process introduces uncertainty because these areas also lack clear definition in the permitting framework.
Natural communities in Vermont are ranked according to how rare they are in the state, and this ranking is based on both the total area that a natural community encompasses (rarity rank) and the quality of the example in the project area (element occurrence rank).
Therefore, not only rare community types, but also common community types that are considered to he high-quality examples, are considered significant.
For instance, a specific natural community may be quite common in the state but is given a RINA designation because it is a high-quality example in an otherwise fragmented block on the proposed wind site. This designation could require more protection and mitigation.
Shifting views. Another challenge in Vermont is the shifting wind power debate and the uncertainty it brings. Over the last decade, the construction of commercial wind projects in Vermont has raised concerns within many communities and environmental organizations, and opposition continues to be strong.
In the November elections, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor debated the merits of a moratorium on commercial wind projects, and Gov. Peter Shumlin has formed a commission to reexamine, and perhaps streamline, the permitting process.
As mentioned, wind projects are currently permitted through the PSB as part of the state’s public utility oversight. However, some argue that the permits should be routed through the Natural Resources Board established by Vermont’s Act 250 process in order to provide more local control over the permitting process. The new commission has until April 30 to make any recommendations, and the current ambiguity about how projects will move forward may affect projects in the state.
Despite all of this uncertainty, Vermont is quite progressive and proactive in its approach to wind development when compared to other states. The state’s permitting process has evolved to include well-defined procedures for many species, and the PSB has been able to keep the process focused and orderly.
In contrast, many states postpone the process each time an opponent comes forward and criticize mitigation efforts but make no recommendations for improvement. Perhaps even worse, Pennsylvania has no ability to regulate and can, therefore, only suggest guidelines for developers.
Another strength of the Vermont system is that most of the agencies think proactively about the consequences of their decisions and help to create a fair and practical approach to mitigation. The ANR, for example, is very willing to sit down with developers before the hearing phase to brainstorm mitigation tactics and prepare them for the obstacles that may lie ahead. ANR also tends to put the potential species impacts into perspective. In other words, the agency will weigh the projected impacts of wind farms in relation to those of other sources of mortality, and will work with developers on mitigation plans that fairly address the proper threat level, ultimately providing the greatest overall benefit to the species.
The state is in the process of collecting two years of data from post-construction monitoring at First Wind’s Sheffield wind project in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. (For more on the Sheffield wind project, see “Opposition and permitting delays unable to deter Vermont project,” North American Windpower, January 2013)
This will be the first research in the state to estimate bird and bat collision mortality and the effectiveness of turbine curtailment on bat mortality reductions. The state hopes those results can be applied to similar projects, which would significantly reduce the time and money typically spent on that level of research, as well as provide increased predictability. That flexibility reflects Vermont regulators’ willingness to carefully consider emerging research and information when shaping their permitting and regulatory process.
Given the favorable topography and long history of wind project development in the state, Vermont remains a worthwhile target for continued wind energy development. To succeed, developers must enter the process with two key expectations:
Frequent communication. Developers should be ready, willing and able to meet regularly with state and federal agencies to discuss necessary surveys, brainstorm options and find solutions that make sense. Each project is different, and the state readily acknowledges that solutions are site-dependent. If a developer chooses to move along in a vacuum without that interaction, the PSB process will likely not go smoothly.
Willingness to mitigate. In the past, many wind developers resisted taking in-depth mitigation measures because the parameters and effects were not well defined. But with the data and precedents now in place, mitigation is now an accepted part of the process. Green Mountain Power (GMP), the developer of the state’s newest wind farm – the 21-turbine, 63 MW Kingdom Community Wind project, located in Lowell – went into the project knowing there would be a good deal of research and mitigation necessary.
Ultimately, GMP funded over 2,700 acres of mitigation and agreed to a post-construction study similar to the one done for the Sheffield project, as well as worked closely with the regulatory agencies throughout the process. As a result, the permitting process for the Kingdom project was the shortest ever for a wind project in the history of Vermont’s wind development.
Although the easements, post-construction monitoring and other plans were costly, they ultimately increased the speed and reduced the risk incurred during the process. Early consultation with the agencies allowed GMP to carefully plan for the costs in its financial assessment for the project, and the company was willing to do so. This willingness ultimately prevented delays and complications, appeased opponents, and protected the environment.
As with any construction project, unexpected issues will undoubtedly arise. The state’s strict regulatory climate can help developers plan ahead for many of these issues, but it also places a spotlight on every step of the process. Understanding the reasoning for the process – and how to work with state agencies to find solutions – will make that path much smoother and, ultimately, successful for everyone involved.
Adam Gravel and Kristen Watrous are environmental scientists and project managers at environmental consultancy Stantec. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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