United States

United States

Vermont's slow journey to go beyond 6MW capacity

US: More than a dozen years after Vermont's only wind farm came online in the form of the 6MW Searsburg project, the New England state may finally be ready to add up to 63MW more - but not without a fight.

Despite its green reputation, Vermont's only wind farm is the 6MW Searsburg plant. The project was constructed in the 90s
Despite its green reputation, Vermont's only wind farm is the 6MW Searsburg plant. The project was constructed in the 90s

Green Mountain Power (GMP), the Vermont utility that owns Searsburg, intends to install about 20 machines on a ridgeline near the town of Lowell. But the Lowell Mountain Group plans to lobby Vermont utility regulators, who have yet to approve the $150 million Kingdom Community project.

The Lowell townspeople cast ballots on the project’s fate in March, resulting in a 78% voter turnout with 75% voting in favour of the project. But neighbouring communities have had little say. So before any approvals, or even the make of turbines, are determined, months of hearings and expert testimony from both sides are expected. GMP would like a decision by next spring. "There are a handful of really committed opponents," says Dotty Schnure, the utility’s communications manager. "In Vermont, any generation project that’s proposed always has some opponents."

Jared Margolis, an attorney representing the Lowell Mountain Group, says the main concerns relate to aesthetics and noise issues. "There’s always a balance," Margolis says. "There’s a societal issue with clean energy. But there are also the people that are directly impacted. Those people have a right to make sure that their investments in their homes are going to be stable."

In an effort to head off the opposition, GMP recently filed a 1,300-page document detailing the issues that might arise. "We decided we would basically frontload our effort and look at everything – do all of the studies before we filed for permission to build the project," Schnure says.

But Margolis sees those efforts from a different point of view. "I don’t know if their intent is to just drown everyone in paper," he says. "But they’re doing a good job of that. So we need to take some time to look through these materials, see what they’re planning on doing and how they’re planning on doing it. Hopefully, we’ll have a good chance to do that in front of the Public Service Board. And, hopefully, they’ll listen."

As another part of its pre-emptive effort to appease the opposition, GMP has promised to pay upwards of $400,000 annually to the town of Lowell and plans to establish a "good-neighbour fund" to give each of five nearby towns a yearly minimum of $10,000 for ten years.

Towns with property within a five-mile radius of the turbines will receive payments based on the amount of energy generated each year so that they get direct economic benefit from the project, Schnure says.

But Margolis remains sceptical. "Just because Green Mountain Power is throwing some money at the situation doesn’t resolve those same issues that come up with most of these projects," he says. "The town of Albany, which is right nearby, is going to have a direct view of the project from downtown. And they don’t have a real big say in the process."

Margolis maintains that the character of Vermont is at stake. "You live here because you love it and because you love the quality of life," he says. "And that, I think, is why the aesthetics issue is such a hot-button topic in Vermont regarding wind power."

The state’s reluctance to embrace wind power is somewhat ironic. It sees itself as one of the most environmentally conscious states in the US and people are drawn to live there to follow a sustainable lifestyle. In the early 1940s, an experimental 1.25MW turbine was installed on a windy tract known as Grandpa’s Knob. The unlikely machine – dubbed the world’s largest – fed the grid off and on until 1945.

Regardless, GMP is determined to bring wind power to Vermont – one of two states with no coal power plants. In a separate deal, GMP agreed to buy 25% of the power from Noble Environmental Power’s 99MW Granite Reliable wind farm in adjacent New Hampshire. Central Vermont Public Service, the state’s biggest utility, signed on for 30.3% of the power.

GMP, a unit of Quebec energy company Gaz Metro, currently gets about 42% of its power from Entergy’s Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor and roughly 38% from Hydro-Quebec’s hydropower generation. According to Schnure, the deal with Noble represents about four per cent of GMP’s electricity needs, while the Lowell project would account for another six to eight per cent.

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