Editorial: Storm brews over wind power

A ruckus is blowing in Vermont over wind energy.
In Pittsford this past week, roughly 130 residents attended a four-hour special meeting of the town select board to listen to a $150 million plan to build 15 to 20, 500-foot-high wind turbines on Grandpas’ Knob ridgeline on land in four towns: Pittsford, Hubbarton, West Rutland and Castleton. As many as nine to 12 of the turbines would be located in Pittsford. Most of the 130 present were not impressed by the presentation of the proposed plan and were fearful of how the project would affect their immediate surroundings.
Similar crowds have shown up at other town meetings, including a controversial and well-publicized project in Lowell in the Northeast Kingdom.
Opposition to wind power is being organized by grass-root groups like Vermonters for a Clean Environment and Energize Vermont, but mostly by local citizens near the projects who are upset about the scale of the projects, the potential noise concerns, and the lack of demand.
All are valid points that need to be addressed thoroughly by wind power proponents, including by Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has been a fan of fast-tracking wind power development in his first two years in office. In those two years, 11 wind power projects have moved forward, compared to only three projects going online — Sheffield, the Deerfield expansion and Georgia mountain — during the eight years of the Douglas administration. Douglas was an ardent opponent of wind power projects.
What’s clear about the wind power debate is that the vocal opposition stands in stark contrast to statewide opinion.
Polls indicate that around 70 percent of Vermonters consistently support the development of wind power in the state, and over the past decade lawmakers have moved aggressively to favor renewable energy projects. One statewide goal is to produce 20 percent of Vermont’s electricity through renewable energy projects by 2017 — a short five years away.
To meet that goal, the state is guaranteeing 20-year, above-market contracts for projects that are 2.2 megawatts or smaller. That subsidy is in addition to federal incentives that offer production tax credits of 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour of energy produced in the first 10 years. In both cases, the incentives are used to attract investors in the projects that require millions of dollars in upfront capital and several years of operation before developers see a profit.
The uptick in the number of proposed projects may surprise some readers. Currently, there are two wind power projects operating in the state; two more under construction; and nine more that are proposed or in the application process.
Operating are the Sheffield Wind project with 16 turbines generating 40 megawatts; and the smaller Searsburg wind farm with 11 turbines generating 6 megawatts. Under construction are Kingdom Community Wind in Lowell, which would generate 63 megawatts from 21 turbines, and Georgia Mountain Community Wind in Milton/Georgia generating 12 megawatts with four turbines.
According to a report in VtDigger.org, the nine sites being proposed or in the application process, are:
• Grandpa’s Knob in the Pittsford area, 20 turbines, 50 megawatts;
• Vermont Community Wind Farm, Ira/Poultney/West Rutland, 32-42 turbines, 80 megawatts;
• Manchester/Sunderland, 8 turbines, 24 megawatts;
• Deerfield Wind, Readsboro, 15 two-megawatt turbines, 34 megawatts;
• Newark/Brighton/Ferdinand, 30 3-megawatt turbines, generating 60-100 megawatts; 
• Eden, BNE Energy, measuring tower constructed;
• Waitsfield, 20 2- to 3-megawatt turbines, 30-60 megawatt capacity;
?• Londonderry, 20 2-megawatt turbines, 40-megawatt capacity; ?
• Bolton/Ricker Mountain, Bolton, measuring tower constructed, 6-7 turbines proposed.
The number of new proposals has prompted Lukas Snelling, executive director of Energize Vermont, to label the surge of interest “a gold rush,” fueled primarily by the federal and state subsidies. But Snelling emphasizes his group is not against wind energy, but rather promotes citizen involvement and more thoughtful planning. “We’re a pro-renewable energy organization,” he recently told VtDigger.org. “We just want to see it done right. We want to do the right projects in the right places. It’s about finding a process that facilitates appropriate-scale renewable energy.”
He has a point. It does feel as though there is a rush to develop wind projects as quickly as possible before federal and state tax incentives are taken off the table, and the cost effectiveness of these projects are no longer viable without subsidies. That often leads to projects that may not be thoroughly planned, or projects that are located on sites that have a greater impact on neighbors than another location nearby (with fewer residents and at greater distances from the turbines).
But not every environmental group in the state opposes wind projects. VPIRG’s executive director Paul Burns says he’s been involved in power issues for 40 years and his group is in favor of most wind projects and that aesthetics should not play a role in the decision-making of wind power projects.
Burns maintains the state must have a renewable energy policy that develops renewable sources of energy to wean the state off foreign oil and fossil fuels — energy sources that contribute to climate change.
The two sides of the issue expressed by such environmentalists highlight how difficult it is to come to a viable solution, but Sean Nolon, a law professor at Vermont Law School has a recommendation: “The model I propose starts with a statewide process to determine how much energy we want to get from renewable resources. Then the state should decide what facilities are appropriate and where they are appropriate. Finally, once that has been done, then the state needs to provide support for municipalities and applicants with projects in those areas.”
Until such detail develops, another suggestion is for towns to incorporate specific language in their respective town plans that outline a thoughtful plan on how wind powered projects might be sited or whether it was inappropriate. The Public Service Board has the ultimate say, but town plans are important documents that the PSB will review when considering if such projects serve the public good.
That takes about six months for most towns to complete, which is fair warning for any so concerned. No wind energy projects, by the way, have so far been proposed within Addison County.
Angelo S. Lynn

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