IRASBURG – On a stifling Monday evening, nearly 50 people filled the town hall determined to make sure that what happened in Sheffield and Lowell will not happen in Irasburg.
With a name yet to be chosen, the group is organizing on the fly to fight an anticipated proposal by renewable energy developer David Blittersdorf to erect wind turbines on a ridge line known as Kidder Hill. Group leaders like Irasburg residents Rebecca Boulanger and Dr. Ron Holland said they anticipate an uphill battle against a state apparatus geared to rubber stamp any proposal that will help Vermont achieve its goal of increasing the state’s renewable energy portfolio as per the requirements of Act 56. But Sen. John Rodgers, D, Essex-Orleans, outlined a three-tiered political strategy he hopes will save Kidder Hill from wind-energy development.
First, Rodgers said the town should enact an ordinance limiting the blade size for wind turbines to allow for household net-metering but exclude commercial-sized development. Secondly the town should amend its town plan to oppose ridge line wind development. Finally, Rodgers said the project should be put to a town vote, just as soon as activists are certain they have the numbers to defeat it.
None of these measures alone would guarantee that the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) would deny the application for a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) needed to move ahead with development, but Rodgers noted that Gov. Peter Shumlin is on record saying that no project should be sited in a town that does not want it. While the governor does not control the PSB, he does appoint its members.
“If you take the fight to Montpelier, you could all come with guns and you’d still lose,” added Sen. Robert Starr, D, Essex-Orleans. “I think the strongest point you can make, if you have the support, is to have a town vote. I truly think that’s the best way to stop it.”
Exactly what “it” is has yet to be committed to paper. According to PSB rules, applicants seeking a CPG must submit construction plans to municipal governments and regional planning boards at least 45 days prior to filing a petition with the PSB. Reached by phone on Tuesday, Blittersdorf said the 45-day notice could be filed as early as Friday, but he described the project as “essentially the same as on Georgia Mountain, but only two turbines instead of four.”
Opposition leaders characterized the proposed turbines as the highest in Vermont. Blittersdorf did not address that claim directly, but said the 2.5 megawatt towers will stand the same 90-meters high as the towers in Sheffield and Lowell, but the blade diameter will be 121 meters, or nine meters larger than at the other Northeast Kingdom sites. That means that at the top of its arc, the tip of a turbine blade will be about 493 feet high, versus 479 feet at Sheffield and Lowell.
While opposition to the project ranged through the familiar concerns such as a blighted rural landscape, noise-related health effects and declining property values near the development site, Dr. Holland urged residents to also focus a more fundamental flaw: that for all the negative impacts of wind energy, it simply does not effectively address climate change. Holland argued that there is no demonstrated link between adding renewable energy capacity and decreasing carbon in the atmosphere. He personally championed a carbon tax, but noted that as long as smokestacks are continuing to pollute, the industrial processes required to manufacture, transport and erect wind towers are only making things worse.
“These guys are filling their pockets with our money, first with the tax credits, then with our rates,” said Rodgers earlier in the evening to a round of applause. “This is a rush to make money, pure and simple. People who get educated, you’ll have them on your side. Your task is to educate people and make sure you have a strong vote. The more of a majority you have, the better.”
In addition to its political strategy, the group is also considering legal challenges based on the fact that Blittersdorf did not seek or receive a CPG to erect meteorological (MET) towers to measure the wind, because he claimed the towers (still in place) were erected to measure the potential for powering his own vacation residence on the site and therefore a CPG was not required.
Blittersdorf does not dispute the facts. He said he bought the land about five years ago because he “always wanted to build a log cabin on the top of a mountain.” Once completed, he said he ran a cable to the house and applied for a net metering permit from the PSB with the intention of throwing up turbines to power the house. Blittersdorf said it was only after seeing the data from MET towers that he realized the ridge had commercial generating potential.
“The technology has changed dramatically for low wind speeds,” said Blittersdorf. “Five years ago the technology hadn’t been developed that was good enough for that site. We’re a good 500 feet lower here than in Lowell and that means slower winds.”
And Blittersdorf maintains that he intends to continue using the cabin as a part-time residence.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’m the closest neighbor.”
Blittersdorf took issue with some of the characterizations of the impending proposal, but also offered a spirited philosophical argument for wind energy as a whole.
He defended the development as a “community wind project” because he said 10 percent of the electricity generated will be available to Green Mountain Power customers at a discounted net-metering rate. Blittersdorf complained of a convoluted statutory scheme that prevents even more of the power being available locally. While the line the turbines will connect to is owned by GMP, area residences are served by the Vermont Electric Cooperative and state law, he said, prevents the sale of net-metered power across utility boundaries.
Blittersdorf also said that the Renewable Energy Credits earned by the facility “will be retired” rather than sold out of state to allow another utility to pollute more.
“If the town votes, I’m not going to say I’ll hold to it,” said Blittersdorf. “I hope they don’t vote against it… but if they did, my next question would be ‘What are you for?’ The town imports 90 percent of its energy and food. We don’t want to generate our own energy and food? We want those impacts to be on someone else? I don’t think that is morally or ethically correct.”
“The reason the PSB has authority at the state level is to act for the public good,” he added. “We do not allow a single town to veto any project. I think it’s appropriate to take input from local communities, but we need to balance that with the greater public good.”
The scheduled two-hour session ran long as local residents broke into small groups to scan through the rolls of about 760 registered voters looking for friends and neighbors to approach for support. So residents of Irasburg can expect a knock on the door from a familiar face in the coming days or weeks. Whether organizers can muster a majority in opposition to the project and get them to the polls for a yet to be warned referendum remains to be seen. If anti-wind forces prevail at the ballot, the PSB may feel pressured to give substance to the words of the governor.
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