GRAFTON – A developer is proposing Vermont’s largest, most-powerful wind turbine site – 28 turbines churning out nearly 97 megawatts – on a ridge in the towns of Windham and Grafton, according to new plans released Monday.
With that scale would come sizable economic benefits, as developer Iberdrola Renewables estimates $285,000 in annual tax revenue for Grafton and $715,000 for Windham – more than than that town’s entire budget. Also, the project might pump another $700,000 into the state education fund each year.
Those numbers could change, as could the proposed project’s final layout: An Iberdrola administrator expects that residents in both towns might vote on a final proposal in late 2016.
“It’s important for us to win a successful vote in Grafton and Windham in order to move forward,” Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman said, adding, “that’s what we will do here – honor the vote.”
But after Copleman and other executives faced many questions at a packed meeting at Grafton Elementary on Monday night, it’s not clear how those votes will go.
“There was a disconnect between what Iberdrola wanted us to know about benefits to the towns and what the very real concerns of the towns are,” said Mary Boyer, Windham Selectboard chairwoman.
Administrators at Iberdrola and New Hampshire-based Meadowsend Timberlands Ltd. first disclosed in 2012 that they were interested in studying wind resources at Stiles Brook Forest, a 5,000-acre tract that lies mostly in Windham and Grafton. Meadowsend owns and works that land, and the company has put forth environmental and economic reasons for pursuing wind turbines.
On a website set up to promote the project – www.stilesbrookforest.com – company administrators say Windham County’s first commercial turbine development “would help support (Meadowsend’s) ownership objectives for this piece of land by providing some stability to help keep it as working forestland in this time of climate change and volatile economics.”
Opponents are concerned about the project’s aesthetic and environmental impacts: In Grafton, a nonprofit called Grafton Woodlands Group has set up a Main Street storefront in opposition to large-scale wind turbines.
The project also has spurred consistent objections from Windham, where the town plan bans such turbines. Windham officials have traveled to Montpelier to testify about wind-siting and permitting issues.
Though Windham officials opposed installation of meteorological-testing towers at Stiles Brook, the state Public Service Board OK’d them, and the towers began functioning in April 2013. In September, the Public Service Board granted Iberdrola’s request to continue using those towers for another two years.
Iberdrola’s schedule still calls for turbine construction in 2019 “if favorable permitting decisions are obtained.” The biggest hurdle will be a state certificate of public good, and Iberdrola – doing business for this project as Atlantic Wind LLC – has not yet filed that application.
“We are still in the early stages of development,” said Jenny Briot, a senior business developer with Iberdrola.
The company is far enough along, though, to show for the first time a preliminary, proposed layout for the Stiles Brook turbines. They would sprawl across the parcel, with some clustered around an existing power-line right of way and others standing farther out, near the borders of Meadowsend property.
At their closest, the turbines would stand within about a mile of residences, Iberdrola estimates. But the company could not yet say how many people would be living that close.
Plans call for 20 turbines in Windham and another eight in Grafton. Each would be a 3.45 megawatt turbine standing 287 feet from the base to the top of the tower; with a blade extended in a straight-upright position, its tip would reach 492 feet above the ground.
The Stiles Brook wind development would be, by far, the biggest in Vermont. Among facilities already in operation, the next-biggest is Kingdom Community Wind in Lowell, with 21 turbines capable of producing 63 megawatts of power.
Stiles Brook’s turbines also would be, individually, the most-powerful in Vermont. Copleman said that’s a function of evolving design. “As turbines have gotten more efficient and cost-effective, they’ve been able to take advantage of more wind,” he said.
In addition to unveiling their first official design on Monday, Iberdrola administrators also estimated that the company would pay a total of $1 million in annual property taxes to the two towns. This number, after it is set in the form of a final offer, would not fluctuate from year to year, Briot said.
“It’s not based on production,” she said. “It’s based on installed megawatts.”
State education taxes are calculated differently for wind installations: The state reaps $0.003 per kilowatt hour of energy produced. Iberdrola officials estimate that the state could collect $700,000 per year from Stiles Brook, “and likely more.”
That would no doubt be welcome revenue for the cash-strapped state, but it’s not going to drive down anyone’s property taxes noticeably. A state Department of Taxes official on hand Monday night said that, in the context of the state’s education fund, the impact of Stiles Brook “would not be measurable in any significant way.”
There were roughly 150 people at Monday’s meeting. And, while some residents asked about Iberdrola’s financial figures, others reiterated concerns about impacts on health, property values and aesthetics.
Michael Clayton, a permitting manager for Iberdrola Renewables, displayed early tests showing that visibility of the Stiles Brook turbines would be “limited” in much of Grafton. Several of those in attendance questioned that conclusion, including Liisa Kissel, a Grafton Woodlands Group director.
“I was very disappointed in the visual simulations,” Kissel said after the meeting. “All of the photos were taken from low-lying places. Most of us live a little higher.” Added Boyer: “Our simulations don’t look like theirs.”
Clayton said Iberdrola is working on more such simulations and will disclose those at meetings planned for early 2016.
Kissel also was not impressed by Iberdrola’s tax-revenue projections. She believes that, even if tax rates decline, “that’s then counteracted by the loss of property value.”
Other issues raised at Monday’s forum included:
• In response to concerns about flooding, Iberdrola officials said the project will introduce a relatively small amount of new, impervious surfaces to Stiles Brook. “Very typically, it’s two acres or less per turbine,” Copleman said.
• When Kissel mentioned recent reports showing a lack of appetite among Vermont utilities for more wind-generated power, Copleman said the market could be different in 2019. “We think that, broadly, there’s an interest in renewable energy here in Vermont,” he said.
• Briot said the life expectancy of a wind turbine is 25 years. If Iberdrola builds at Stiles Brook, the company will have to create a state-regulated decommissioning fund to cover eventual dismantlement of the project, she added.
• There were several questions about noise, light and possible health impacts from turbines. Both during and after the meeting, Copleman responded by citing Vermont’s permitting process and Iberdrola’s track record.
“We can point to thousands of landowners that we lease land from and many more neighbors at our projects across the country where there is no problem,” Copleman said. “The scientific evidence does not link turbines to human health (problems).”
Iberdrola planned to hold another community meeting on the Stiles Brook project Tuesday at Windham Meeting House.
Beyond that, Briot pledged to continue to communicate with local residents. “As we have information and results from our studies, we will share them with you,” she said.
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