Getting into the wind

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(Host) With world oil prices at high levels, energy developers in Vermont are turning to a local power source: wind. Vermont is in the midst of a wind energy boom with a half dozen projects planned for mountain tops around the state. Experts predict that large-scale wind generators could eventually supply 20% of the state’s electricity needs. But the wind boom has also raised concerns about development in high elevation areas.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Sound of wind and turbine blades.)

(Dillon) Here on a ridgetop in Searsburg, a tiny community about 15 miles from Bennington, 11 white towers are silhouetted against the blue sky. Each tower has three long, blades that sweep 130-foot wide circles in the air. They look like huge, gigantic pinwheels that rotate slowly above the spruce and birch trees.

This is the state’s first commercial wind farm. When the wind blows strong, it can produce up to six megawatts. But on this day, the breeze is gentle, the black turbine blades barely turn, and the power output is zero.

(Sound of a metal door clanking open.) Site supervisor Art Miller steps inside one of the towers to check the wind gauge.

(Miller) “This is saying zero, it probably varies. In the low winds they don’t read much, probably five or six miles per hour.”

(Dillon) Depending on your point of view, the Searsburg towers are pleasing to look at, or they’re an eyesore on an otherwise pristine ridgeline. Now imagine dozens more towers, almost three times as high, with flashing lights to warn nearby airplanes. That’s the size and scale of projects proposed around Vermont, from the Northeast Kindgom to Bennington County.

Green Mountain Power and a California company want to get six times the amount of power out of the Searburg site by building dozens of taller towers nearby. A subsidiary of Rutland-based Central Vermont Public Service Corporation has its sights set on a peak in Windham County. It’s proposed up to 27 towers for Glebe Mountain near the Magic Mountain ski area in Londonderry. Some people don’t want that ridgeline developed.

(Sam Lloyd) “My name is Sam Lloyd and I serve as co-chair of the Glebe Mountain Group, an organization that formed recently as a result of a proposal by Catamount Energy Corporation to develop 3.5 miles of Glebe Mountain.”

(Dillon) Lloyd is a former legislator and member of the Environmental Board. He came to the Legislature recently to call for a moratorium on new projects until the state develops a policy that weighs the pros and cons of wind energy. He says Vermont should proceed carefully with mountain top development.

(Lloyd) “An acre of forested Glebe Mountain ridgeline would be required for each of the 27 turbines. The long and short term effects on wildlife could be substantial. We simply don’t know.”

(Dillon) And Lloyd questions whether wind energy will ever replace conventional power plants.

(Lloyd) “Wind power is so unreliable and intermittent that it requires back-up generating facilities for the substantial amount of time that turbines are not producing energy.”

(Dillon) Wind energy developers acknowledge that their generators can’t be online all the time. John Zimmerman, a consultant who works with Green Mountain Power on the Searsburg site, says the pay off is cleaner air. Zimmerman also came to the Statehouse to lobby lawmakers on a bill to promote renewable energy.

(Zimmerman) “I don’t think anybody in the wind industry has ever really proposed that wind turbines will offset the need for conventional generating sources. I think what really is the case, though, is that wind offsets the need for burning fossil fuels. The direct result from that will be less dependence on fossil fuels and cleaner air. So that benefit will carry the day in its own right.”

(Dillon) There’s another potential benefit: cheap electricity. Proponents say wind right now will be less expensive than most other energy sources in New England. Matt Rubin is a Montpelier-based energy entrepreneur who already owns a number of hydropower dams around the state.

(Rubin) “This is something that is not much publicly known yet. It’s the wholesale price of electricity. And here we are in March it’s running 10 cents an hour wholesale. So wind power, which can be delivered for five and a half cents a kilowatt hour, is absolutely the cheapest form of electricity.”

(Dillon) Rubin now wants to build a 75-megawatt wind project with fifty 330-foot towers in a remote area of the Northeast Kingdom. Some of the turbines would be built on land once owned by the Champion paper company. The property is under conservation easements that prohibit industrial development. The Legislature may have to lift those restrictions to allow Rubin’s project to go forward.

Rubin says the public will get used to wind towers on ridgelines, just as people have grown accustomed to ski areas in the mountains. He says people who object to wind turbines probably haven’t seen one.

(Rubin) “The modern wind turbine, for one thing, goes 16 revolutions a minute. That’s one revolution every four seconds. This is really very slow and people see them and they say ‘Wow, they’re really calming. They’re really beautiful. They look like birds in flight.'”

(Dillon) Wind power gets a lot of attention because over the next 15 years Vermont could lose several large energy contracts. The license for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, which produces about a third of the state’s energy demand, will expire in 2012. And the Hydro-Quebec contract, which supplies another third of the state’s needs, ends a few years later.

The energy that powers the wind turbines is free. And with oil and natural gas prices at very high levels, wind is now competitive. One reason is that the projects get federal tax benefits that reduce the wholesale price by about two cents a kilowatt hour. Critics say the tax credits drive the wind energy boom. The credits expire at the end of the year, although they may be renewed by Congress. Still, many developers are scrambling to file formal applications before the deadline.

Art Scutro is chairman of the Manchester village planning commission. Catamount Energy of Rutland wants to build a nine-megawatt plant on Little Equinox Mountain outside the village. Scutro says he’s withheld judgment while the plan is studied. But, like Sam Lloyd, he questions how much difference wind power will make to clean the air in Vermont.

(Scutro) “The second issue is how much we want to subsidize through our tax dollars. Because in fact it is not free, federal subsidies reduce the cost of this power to the point where it is a financial windfall for developers and their financial backers.”

(Dillon) Wind proponents say most other forms of energy are also subsidized. They say these subsidies include federally-backed insurance coverage for nuclear power to the military force that guards Mid East oil supplies.

The wind energy boom raises conflicting issues for environmentalists. It’s hard to be against an energy source that doesn’t cause acid rain or add to global warming. Yet environmentalists also recognize the aesthetic impacts of wind energy. They acknowledge that fragile mountain habitats would have to be disturbed to accommodate the dozens of new towers. Matteo Burani is outreach coordinator with the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

(Burani) “That’s the philosophical question that’s so interesting: is the environmental movement based on aesthetics or is it based on science? Because if it is based on science, then these ridgetops should 100% be developed. Even though, then again if you look at conservation biology, that science may say we ought to keep those areas un-fragmented. That’s definitely the interesting question.”

(Dillon) Burani says the state needs to identify which ridgelines are most suitable for development, such as those that already have roads and powerlines, and which ones should be protected.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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