The lengthy review process for the largest of the few new wind projects being planned in Vermont took a step forward on Monday.
Dairy Air Wind, a 2.2 megawatt turbine to be built on Brian and Kim Champney’s dairy farm in Holland, won a bid for a contract under the state’s standard offer program in 2016. The standard offer program affords developers a long-term, fixed price contract for electricity produced from renewable energy projects up to 2.2 MW in size.
But the turbine still has to obtain a certificate of public good from the state’s Public Utility Commission – a process that has stalled for almost two years in the face of pushback from nearby residents, utilities and the state’s Department of Public Service.
The state Public Utility Commission issued an order this week reversing a May decision to hold off on reviewing site-specific criteria for the project until the body determined how the electricity it generates would impact the already overburdened northern tier of the state’s electrical grid, called the SHEI. The new order means the PUC can now schedule project hearings that had previously been delayed.
The PUC also ruled that the developers must show how the turbine meets criteria for new in-state electricity generation – a condition sometimes waived for smaller energy projects.
“The construction of new generation capacity in an area with known transmission constraints raises a significant issue with respect to the criteria regarding economic benefit and compliance with the State Comprehensive Energy Plan,” wrote the PUC in its Monday order.
Brian Champney said he contacted project developer David Blittersdorf about building a wind turbine on his family’s farmland because he has been interested in local renewable energy production for decades and wanted to diversify his farm income. Due to the frequent wind on his property, he felt a turbine was the best fit for his farm.
“If we can generate (electricity) here, at home, in our own state, why wouldn’t we?” he asked.
But the proposal has drawn the ire of some other Holland residents, who have raised concerns in PUC filings about the impact to property values from the turbine. Timothy Sykes, member of the town’s selectboard, wrote in a filing that Holland is “quiet and dominated by natural beauty, farms and woodlots.”
“The noise, motion, and industrial appearance of this wind turbine would destroy these characteristics,” he added.
Champney said he feels selling part of his land to a developer – an option he’s considering due to low milk prices – would have a greater impact on the rural landscape than a single wind turbine in one of the cornfields.
“All the people in town that are fighting it – not one of those people came to me last week and offered to pay my property taxes,” he said.
The project has also received pushback from the state’s Department of Public Service and electrical utilities, which have argued that the turbine will add more renewable energy generation to the oversubscribed SHEI.
Ed McNamara, director of planning and energy resources for the department, said that while 450 MW of electricity are generated in that northern tier of the electrical grid, there’s only 60-70 MW of load in that region.
“The transmission lines in this area were built 80 years ago, and they’re really built to serve small dairy farms,” he said. “They were never meant to export large amounts of generation out of the area.”
This imbalance means that some of the region’s larger wind projects, like Kingdom Community Wind and the Sheffield Wind Farm, have to be scaled back at certain times of the year, translating into costs for utilities that either own projects or have long-term contracts. McNamara said the department’s stance was that this project “is going to result in increased curtailment of existing resources.”
McNamara noted that the department did not feel there should be no future renewable energy generation in the area, but that new projects should be put “on hold” until upgrades to the SHEI portion of the grid are made. The department is looking into grid constraints in the state as a whole for a report due in January, he added.
While transmission upgrades could allow more electricity to be exported out of the northern part of the state, those improvements would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, he said. Other possibilities include adding more batteries to store excess electricity and increasing the region’s load, or energy use. For example, Vermont Electric Cooperative, the electricity provider for most of the SHEI area, has been working with sugarmakers to replace diesel generators with electricity in their operations.
Andrea Cohen, manager of government affairs for Electric Coop, said it was a party to the PUC proceeding due to concerns about the “economic impact to our membership from this and other large projects to the SHEI area” from curtailment.
Nick Charyk, communications manager for Blittersdorf’s company, All Earth Renewables, said the developer felt the project was “back on track” as a result of the most recent PUC order. He added that the developer was looking forward to the opportunity for “robust” review of criteria such as aesthetic and economic issues now that the hearings can be scheduled.
But Dairy Air is the last wind project Blittersdorf will be working on for the time being in Vermont, said Charyk. Gov. Phil Scott has vowed not to have any new ridgeline wind projects, which have faced steep community pushback in the state. He appointed Anthony Roisman, an environmental lawyer who has fought prominent cases against wind development, to chair the PUC in 2017.
Blittersdorf has switched to building turbines in other states, like Massachusetts, where new projects face a less “hostile environment” than in Vermont, said Charyk.
“It is frankly quite frustrating that this has taken so long and that there’s been this much unpredictability around the process,” said Charyk.
Brian Champney noted that the turbine gained initial approval for the project in 2016, and, if approved, would not be built until 2019. He said he’s frustrated with the renewable energy development process under the Scott administration, which reaffirmed the state’s greenhouse gas emissions reductions and renewable energy commitments.
“They set this goal that they’re never going to reach unless they allow projects like this to go forward,” Champney said.
Vermont’s electricity portfolio is currently 63 percent renewable, said McNamara. Some utilities are already at the 90 percent renewable mark, which the state as a whole is required to hit by 2050.
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