Report: Wind power's role in Vermont's energy future
The appetite for building wind projects in Vermont has tapered off in recent years.
A combination of factors - the end of federal stimulus money, uncertain reauthorization of federal incentives, difficulties in connecting to the grid, competition with solar and local opposition - have shelved at least two projects and left three others lying dormant.
But the industry might be poised to catch its second wind. Supporters and opponents agree that despite the recent timeout, wind power will likely remain a part of the region's renewable energy mix.
Wind opponents say Vermont's ridgelines - where all the state's utility-scale projects are located - are ecologically sensitive areas threatened by such development. Critics also cite the health and aesthetic impacts of windmills. And a few towns have taken positions against the building of commercial energy generation projects within their borders.
But Gov. Peter Shumlin has made it clear that his administration wants to fight climate change by harnessing all the available resources Vermont has to offer, including the wind. And public surveys indicate that, overall, Vermonters support building these projects in-state.
The public good of taking action on climate change, wind proponents say, outweighs the immediate costs to the environment, aesthetics and health.
Despite the apparent political will for these projects, the tension between local opposition and state support is sending a mixed message to developers considering projects in Vermont.
Steve Terry is a retired employee and consultant for Green Mountain Power, the state's dominant electric utility that developed Vermont's largest wind farm in Lowell.
He said to move future projects forward, developers must spend more time working with local communities.
"And if you can't accept that, you had better find another place to do business," Terry said. "You just have to be ready to understand that that is one of the prices that you have to pay to do business in Vermont. You've got to be willing to explain to a lot of smart and sophisticated Vermonters why the project is in the general public good."
Projects inch forward
Developers are still scouting sites, testing for wind potential, and securing permits to build Vermont's next wind farm.
Spanish wind giant Iberdrola Renewables is proposing two projects in southern Vermont. The company has received a certificate of public good for its 30 megawatt Deerfield Wind project located on ridge between Searsburg and Readsboro, where it is proposing 15 turbines measuring about 400 feet tall, twice the size of Green Mountain Power's existing Searsburg project.
The company defended its project in federal court in July after wind opponents appealed its special use permit to build in the Green Mountain National Forest. The court had not made a decision by the time this story was published.
The anti-wind group Vermonters for a Clean Environment says the project will set a national precedent that will open up national forest land for commercial projects. VCE claims the U.S. Forest Service violated environmental law by inadequately studying the project and its alternatives. The group also says the project will damage nearby wilderness areas due to noise and visual impact.
Even with this case pending, the company says it would not begin construction until it finds a buyer for the power. Iberdrola's state permit requires it to sell most of its power to state utilities at a reasonable price.
The company is also measuring wind at a site in Windham County, but says it will need another year or more to analyze wind data before deciding whether to move forward. The town of Windham drafted an energy plan opposing commercial wind projects.
Green Mountain Power hasn't ruled out more projects in Vermont. Asked whether the company plans to develop another wind project, Dottie Schnure, a company spokeswoman, said GMP is considering all options.
"I wouldn't say no. We are constantly looking at different options," she said.
The company is experimenting with a smaller, 100 kilowatt installation that measures up to about 200 feet. The 3-megawatt Danish VESTA turbines on Lowell Mountain stand about 459-feet tall. On average, utility-scale towers are about 420 feet high, according to Annette Smith, an anti-wind activist.
Renewable energy entrepreneur David Blittersdorf said there is a potential for new, mid-sized wind sites west of the Green Mountains on the "bumps" in the Champlain Valley, or in southern Vermont where projects are currently proposed.
"I'm playing a sort of waiting game," said Blittersdorf, president and CEO of AllEarth Renewables. "In 10 years, I'm sure I'm going to have some more community wind projects."
Blittersdorf developed the 10 megawatt Georgia Mountain Community Wind project completed in 2012.
Local reaction to wind
Jeff Wagner is president of Volkswind USA. The international wind development company has completed two projects in the U.S - and dozens internationally - and has six in the development phase in the U.S.
The company considered developing a wind project on Glebe Mountain in Londonderry and Windham in 2010. However, despite state policy supporting projects like his, Wagner said opposition led by the anti-wind groups made permitting the project too difficult.
"What we see in New England is a tension between overarching federal and state policies with local townships who sometimes get under the influence of well-funded opposition," he said.
That could change.
"If the community and municipal authorities in that area seem to be showing renewed interest in the idea of wind development on Glebe Mountain, then we would again be interested," Wagner said.
Since the first wave of development in the state, wind opponents have been focusing on the local level. Some town plans - such as in Windham, where Iberdrola is proposing an up to 30-turbine project - have codified a prohibition on commercial wind projects.
The town of Waitsfield, which has two proposed locations for wind on Northfield Ridge and the Green Mountain Range, in 2012 adopted an 18-page energy plan that prohibits any development above 1,700 feet above sea level.
The town's plan came after Massachusetts-based developer Citizens Energy showed an interest in the sites. Another developer out of Boston that developed the Sheffield Wind project, First Wind, has been asking landowners about possible sites near Moretown, according to the town energy committee.
First Wind spokesperson John LaMontagne said the company has no projects on the "front burner" in Vermont. However, he said developers often consider many sites before deciding to move forward on a project.
Karen Horn, a member of the Moretown energy committee, said the town is concerned about large-scale wind and is in the process of writing a plan related to commercial wind development.
Horn is also director of public policy for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. She said many towns are just now developing these plans in response to the recent wind developments.
"We're kind of playing catch-up," she said.
While some towns, like Newark and Hardwick, have less stringent plans related to wind, others, like Hyde Park, do not permit "large-scale commercial wind generation."
Nonetheless, Horn said towns have little say in how the projects are sited.
"The towns have been pretty much ignored in the Public Service Board process," she said about the Section 248 siting process for energy generation projects.
Lawmakers have attempted to change Vermont law so state regulators would have to consider town plans when deciding whether to approve such projects. But those attempts failed and might not return to the table as the two leading proponents - Sens. Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington, and Peter Galbraith, D-Windham - are not seeking re-election.
The Shumlin administration and renewable energy advocates opposed giving towns more say in the siting process.
Shumlin has repeatedly warned that in order to confront climate change, the state must harness all its resources - forests, rivers, the sun and the wind - citing natural disasters like Tropical Storm Irene as the reason why Vermont should take action to cut its carbon footprint.
He acknowledges that there will be resistance to in-state generation, and set up the Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission in 2012 to find a solution, which some lawmakers and wind critics say was a toothless endeavor. None of the recommendations from the commission have become state policy.
Shumlin's steady push for renewable development is a significant change from the previous administration's position on wind. Former Gov. Jim Douglas was more sympathetic to community concerns, according to Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
"The statewide interest in renewable energy from wind outweighs the concerns from residents and local governments in the towns where the wind turbines will be placed," he said of Shumlin's view of energy projects.
Dean Corren, the Progressive candidate for lieutenant governor, agrees with the administration that the state needs to build more renewable power in state. But he said all energy systems have positive and negative impacts.
"We need utility-scale wind, but the state ought to be clear on the areas that will be off-limits to wind development," he said.
Some of those who once supported wind have since changed their position, including anti-big-wind groups like Vermonters for a Clean Environment and Energize Vermont. They point to noise as one of their chief concerns.
There is no consensus from communities on the noise impacts of wind turbines. Some residents say the noise does not bother them or they cannot hear the turbines. Others say it keeps them up at night and causes illness. Wind opponents point to noise variability based on location, weather conditions and wind speed.
After receiving complaints about noise emitted from turbines, the Vermont Public Service Board in 2013 opened up an investigation to study the adequacy of its noise standard.
Policy changes make renewables more attractive
Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, who has long legislated for more renewable energy development, said lawmakers may consider new policies next session that will press utilities to find more renewable power.
A major policy change would be a tax on carbon, which proponents say is the most cost-effective way to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
But Klein warns that the policy must be crafted right the first time. Australia recently repealed laws requiring companies to pay for carbon emissions for economic reasons. That is why advocacy groups dedicated to enacting such policies in the U.S. say more of these programs must direct revenue back to residents to increase public support.
But another policy already discussed in the Legislature - and enacted in 16 states - is a renewable portfolio standard (RPS). Already adopted in New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts, an RPS would require utilities to purchase mandated amounts of renewable power.
"I think it's time to move to an RPS," said Klein, who is chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Under such a policy, utilities would likely be looking for more renewable power to add to their portfolio, he said, and "the quickest and easiest way to get it is through wind."
The Department of Public Service will begin studying the economic and environmental effects of moving to a renewable portfolio standard by December. How the RPS affects utilities would depend on how it was structured - how much renewable power utilities would have to purchase and how these power supplies would count toward the mandate.
State power suppliers currently are encouraged to purchase 20 percent of their power from in-state renewables by 2017 under Vermont's SPEED program. The program was launched in 2005 to encourage the development of renewable power generation and will expire in 2017. About 18 percent of power used by utilities comes from projects that count toward the goal, according to DPS.
Critics say the program allows utilities to sell renewable energy certificates for power generated in-state. When utilities sell the certificates, the power they distribute to customers is not renewable but is instead market power that goes into a bucket that includes fossil fuels.
Proponents of the SPEED program say it encourages the buildout of renewable generation. And now, since the price point for renewable infrastructure is lower, utilities can consider building more renewable generation without needing to sell the RECs to subsidize the power costs.
At the federal level, some developers are waiting for the reauthorization of the production tax credit.
Harley Lee is founder and president of Endless Energy Corp., a Maine-based developer proposing a 3 megawatt Manchester Community Wind Farm on Little Equinox Mountain that is currently "on hold."
"When the Federal Production tax credit expires - as it has done something like nine times - the wind industry sees a precipitous drop in activity. This drop is often on the order of 90 percent. Personally, I'd like to see all energy subsidies removed, but, absent that, wind should be given a subsidy that helps level the playing field," he said.
The federal tax credit for wind expired in 2013, but the state Senate Finance Committee renewed the credit in Vermont. The credit is worth 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour for 10 years for wind projects built before 2015. It is designed to encourage investors to fund capital intensive generation projects. Is wind - big or small - right for Vermont?
Harnessing wind in Vermont is like "growing bananas" in the state, according to Mark Whitworth, executive director of Energize Vermont, a group opposing large-scale wind. It just does not make sense, he said.
Compared to other locations in the Northeast and the rest of the country, Vermont does not have as much wind to capture. The total capacity for wind in Vermont is about 3 gigawatts, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. In Texas, the capacity is as high as 1,901 gigawatts. In the Northeast, New York has the greatest capacity at 26 gigawatts.
Ben Luce is a Lyndon State College professor of physics and natural science who is critical of Vermont's renewable energy program.
He said even by developing all available locations for wind in the Northeast - ridgelines, hills and shorelines - wind could only provide less than 3 percent of peak demand, ja "trivial amount" of power for the region, in his view.
And because wind generates the most electricity in mild and cold temperature seasons in Vermont, Luce said wind power does not save electric customers money during the summer when electricity prices are the highest because expensive fossil fuels are burned to meet high demand for air conditioning units.
Others say wind is vital to achieving Vermont's renewable energy goals.
David Hallquist is CEO of Vermont Electric Cooperative, which is a winter-peaking utility. He said solar does not generate enough electricity in the winter months, which is when wind blows the strongest.
"In the winter peak, you've got to have wind," he said. And if the state wants meet its renewable energy goals, wind must be included, he said.
Wind opponents point to alternatives - like solar and energy efficiency - that would impact Vermont's environment less.
Billy Coster is a senior planner and policy analyst for the Agency of Natural Resources. The agency reviews the environmental impacts of energy projects.
"All large-scale development impacts the environment one way or another," he said. High elevation ridgelines often connect wildlife habitat in large continuous blocks of forests. Fragmenting this habitat (by erecting turbines) can disrupt migration patterns for wildlife, he said.
"Generally, when permits are issued, it's a permit to have an impact on the environment. That permit sets the amount of impact that project is allowed to have," he said.
And with many of the projects built in the past several years, he said more time is needed to truly understand what the impacts these project have on the environment.
There are also technical issues for advancing renewable energy development like wind. Before more wind comes to Vermont, the region must find a backup power source for when the wind is not blowing.
The region's grid operator, ISO New England, says if the Northeast builds more wind, it must also find more natural gas - on which the region is currently dependent - or other reliable sources of power.
Renewable energy advocates are undaunted.
As demand management becomes more advanced, grid operators and electricity consumers can time their energy consumption when it's needed and available. Consumers can use a smartphone to start a dishwasher when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.
And renewable energy storage options are improving, said Gabrielle Stebbins, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont. She cited electric cars as one example.
Finding the right fit
Wind opponents say they are not against renewable energy generation. Instead, they are opposed to the commercialized climate change solutions that cloud other viable alternatives.
There is one solution to climate change that all environmentalists agree on: using less energy.
The state's efficiency utility, Efficiency Vermont, has been recognized by the Obama administration as a model for cutting carbon emissions. The nonprofit group offers incentives to residents and businesses to install energy efficient home appliances and seal up their homes so they waste less heat.
But even so, the group has been lobbying in support of electric automobiles and heat pumps - both of which require more electricity. The state's thermal and transportation sectors are the leading source of Vermont's greenhouse gas emissions and proponents of the switch say moving away from gasoline and No. 2 heating oil would quickly reduce the state's carbon footprint.
Other solutions include putting solar panels on already disturbed areas - such as roofs and parking lots - or finding a way to store renewable energy.
But until the political, personal and economic winds shift, development of new wind projects in Vermont is likely to continue to crawl along.
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