The developers of the seven-turbine wind project in Swanton Thursday officially began the process of asking the state for its approval to begin construction. It promises to be a journey that tests the limits of state and federal law, the applicability of the state’s renewable resource goals, and the relationship between those who would build the project and the community that surrounds it.
But the battle that matters most is one of acceptance, which means developing renewable resources in ways that the public supports and in ways that actually contribute to the state’s ambitious renewable energy goals.
If a developer’s project is allowed to run roughshod over a community’s will, then the public’s support for all such projects will wither.
That’s the challenge for the developers of the Swanton Wind project. The Swanton community has already voted 5-1 in opposition to the project. The Swanton Selectboard has vowed to articulate the community’s opposition to the project when the Public Service Board takes its testimony. When the developers contend there is a “silent majority” in favor of the project, the claim rings hollow. Signs of that overwhelming support are non-existent.
No one questions the fact that a majority favor renewable energy projects, but being in favor of such projects doesn’t translate into favoring all projects, no matter the location or the size of the project.
Understanding this separation is the value of the Legislature’s passage of the energy siting bill last session. One of the key functions of the bill is recognizing the value of community input, encouraging communities to set up their own standards as to what sites are best suited for which renewable energy projects. In Franklin County, that task rests with the Northwest Regional Planning Commission. It will be interesting to see the commission’s work on the matter.
The developers also face the task of explaining why their project should go forward when they have been told in advance that the power is not needed, or wanted. Green Mountain Power, the utility involved, has repeatedly explained that the power generated by the proposed turbines is not something it needs. Burlington Electric has the same response. So does Vermont Electric Cooperative.
The utilities are also sensitive to projects that don’t enjoy the support of their surrounding communities. For good reason. Projects strongly opposed locally can cast a poor light on the renewable power industry in general. If developers are allowed to build their projects in the midst of communities that don’t want them, then the hostility to such projects in general is something to be considered.
That consideration is particularly important with the Swanton wind project. The proposed turbines would be almost 500-feet high, and within close proximity to numerous homeowners, and the Swanton and St. Albans communities. Many who favor wind turbines on our ridgelines are still uncomfortable with the thought of living within close proximity to installations of such size.
The developers have offered to buy out any homeowner within 3,000 feet of the proposed wind towers, which, on the surface, may seem to resolve the issue of surrounding homeowners. But it’s a safe bet that most of these families don’t want to move, and it begs the question: Are these projects so financially beneficial that they can afford to buy out all the affected homeowners? If so, why?
In sum, if a community doesn’t want the project, and if the utilities say the power is not needed, what gives the developers any hope going forward?
That’s the struggle between state and federal law. The developers contend that federal statute holds sway, which means all they have to do is to satisfy the letter of the law, which does not include matters of public opinion or need. Under the federal law the utilities would be forced to pay long-term prices at the same level they pay for power elsewhere.
Obviously, it will be a while before all the variables are fully understood. But how the Swanton Wind project plays out over the next 12 months will give Vermont a clearer understanding of what works, and what doesn’t. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “certificate for public good.”
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