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United States

TIME RUNNING OUT ON FEDERAL GRANT

The future of a 6.05 MW wind farm proposal in Vermont remained uncertain in mid March, with project backers anxious for a final vote by state regulators before the spring. The $9.5 million plant, planned by local utility Green Mountain Power Corp (GMP), is intended for research and development of wind turbines in cold climates. GMP hopes to install the 11 Zond Z-40 turbines -- on 200 foot towers and with black blades -- near Searsburg starting this spring. The plant, scheduled to be on-line this autumn, would be the largest in New England.

Most pressing is that the project is ear-marked for a $3.5 million federal grant -- but that money becomes more uncertain the longer the project is delayed. The money is being awarded by the US Department of Energy and the utility-funded Electric Power Research Institute.

Objections to the project have been raised by wildlife advocates and at least one local landowner. Others are questioning how much New England needs additional power when some of the region's utilities are having to sell excess power at a loss. GMP, however, sees the project in terms of research and as something that will address future rather than immediate needs.

In early February, staff at the state Public Service Board recommended their board approve the wind project -- with certain conditions such as minimising the project's impact on black bears and songbirds and their habitat, a continuing environmental study, and continued public acceptance. The utility agreed to those conditions, says GMP project consultant John Zimmerman. But an opposing group, Green Mountain Forest Watch, also submitted comments to the state and demanded a hearing for oral objections, which was held on March 12. Now state regulators must issue a final decision.

When built, the project would be on private land adjacent to the protected publicly-owned Green Mountain National Forest. It was to have been built on US Forest Service land, but since the federal agency foresaw delays and halted action on the permits, the project site was moved.

Zimmerman, however, says that additional delays in the project start-date, originally scheduled for this spring, could be devastating if the federal backing is lost. "The farther you push that grant money into the futureÉ my concern is that it will not be available if the project has to wait." he says. "We've requested they act quicklyÉ within several weeks." It appears the federal cash might not be available if the project is delayed beyond the end of this calendar year.

The utility has spent more than a decade analysing the wind in Vermont, known as an environmentally-conscious state. In 1989 it erected two US Windpower 56-100 turbines on Mount Equinox that ran for four years. Winter icing was a significant problem, reducing the power the turbines could produce. Thus the blades on the new turbines will be black -- to retain the sun's heat.

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