The developers of the Swanton wind project this week pulled their proposal from consideration by the Public Utility Commission, eliciting waves of relief from those opposed, in particular those who lived in close proximity to the proposed 500-foot turbines. The developers withdrew because of the uncertainty of the state’s permitting process, and questions as to whether federal subsidies would continue at current levels. A spokesman for the developers – Travis and Ashley Belisle – said: “Here in Vermont, the project currently faces a hostile environment from an administration opposed to wind energy, regulators, and monopoly utilities who import a majority of Vermont’s power while opposing many independent local power projects.”
In other words, after two long years it didn’t seem wise to throw good money after bad.
There isn’t any question that Vermont has become a less friendly environment to wind power developers. New, and more restrictive sound and siting standards have been put in place. Public opinion has shifted to a more cautious approach. And the present administration is firmly opposed to turbines being placed on Vermont’s ridgelines.
A decade ago, the Swanton Wind project might have sailed through. But today, it was the wrong project, at the wrong time, and in the wrong place. This is backed by fact that three separate communities – Swanton, St. Albans, and Fairfield – had public votes in which the vast majority opposed the project.
We can’t remember a time that a single project brought together three separate communities, all in opposition.
This opposition had little to nothing to do with the Belisles themselves. It was the project and the fact that the public didn’t want five, 500-foot turbines so close to where we live. The project was perceived as a severe violation of the public’s sense of space.
It also flunked the common sense test in terms of the value of the energy produced. Both Green Mountain Power and Vermont Electric Cooperative made it clear they didn’t need the power and that the federal program [PURPA] would make the power unduly expensive.
There is also a transmission capacity issue. The system, as the utilities noted, isn’t large enough to handle the power the Swanton Wind project would produce, which could force them to curtail the power already being generated elsewhere. It was this capacity issue that the PUC had asked Swanton Wind to address.
As the developers have noted, the project has been withdrawn, but they have the option to resubmit the proposal at their choosing. Wind power technology is changing rapidly; no one knows what the future might bring in terms of what might become publicly acceptable.
If so, they would have to restart the entire bureaucratic process. To date, that process has already stretched two years. That’s an expensive undertaking and one not likely to be replicated unless the state’s regulatory environment was welcoming, federal subsidies were assured, and the public opposition disappeared.
That doesn’t seem likely.
The two-year process was also notable as one that galvanized a large swath of the three communities affected by the proposed project. The opponents did an extraordinary job in publicizing their message and making sure the regulators knew of their concerns. They articulated their concerns so well that the selectboards in Swanton, St. Albans and Fairfield pledged taxpayer dollars to the opposition’s efforts. They were convincing enough to win the public’s vote by substantial margins.
This is one instance in which apathy didn’t rule.
Perhaps that’s the lesson to be learned. No matter the objective, reaching the goal demands getting involved. There are no short-cuts.