Vermont’s long, careful path to renewable energy, pt. 2: the regulatory record

by: John Walters (jvwalt)

Tue Mar 19, 2013 at 20:24:10 PM EDT

Opponents of utility-scale wind development in Vermont have said a lot of untrue and inflammatory things about wind energy. They accuse wind developers and advocates of a “mad rush” to “destroy” our mountains and ridgelines, not to mention “time-honored Vermont traditions.” They bemoan all the supposedly unanswered questions about wind — its safety, efficacy, and effects on forests, wildlife, and water quality. They also question the viability of wind power in Vermont, and why turbines must be sited on ridgelines instead of, say, in the Champlain valley.Would it surprise you to learn that these questions have all been thoroughly explored right here in Vermont, in a lengthy series of reports, working papers, and official actions? All freely available online for your perusal?Well, surprise, surprise.In part 1 of this two-part series, I reviewed the legislative history of Vermont’s renewable energy policy — how it was crafted carefully, painstakingly, over 15 years time, with ample opportunity for one and all to have their say. Here, in part 2, I’ll look at our regulatory history, and outline a parallel process — equally rigorous and inclusive.
We begin part 2 back in 1996, when “Independence Day” ruled the box office and (oh God no) “Macarena” was top of the pops. That was the year we entered the Age of Wind, as the Public Service Board approved Vermont’s first modern wind farm, at Searsburg. (Photo: Searsburg turbines.)The project’s opening marked the midpoint of an extensive study of wildlife impacts. Which found,mirabile dictu, pretty much no impact whatsoever.The study began in 1994 and ended in 1998. It was the first in the eastern US to study a wind farm’s effect on bird populations, fatalities, behavior, and migration patterns before, during, and after construction of a commercial-scale wind facility. The conclusion: “Overall, it appeared that impacts were minor. Those that were found are not likely to [have] significant adverse effects on populations of any species on a regional scale.”Researchers found no bird carcasses near the turbines, and no evidence of scavenger activity. This doesn’t prove there were no turbine-related fatalities, but it strongly suggests that “only a few, if any birds” were killed.After the jump: Why ridgelines are the only good sites for turbines; ways to limit aesthetic issues; considerations of water quality; why Act 250 jurisdiction was rejected; and a review of the literature on turbine noise.
In 2002, DPS released a report on Vermont’s wind energy resources, which reported that “Vermont’s wind resource is abundant enough to meet a significant portion of the state’s electric power needs.” The report notes that with the “forthcoming shutdown” of Vermont Yankee (if only), “opportunities for replacing nuclear generation with wood and wind generation should be explored.”And where are the best wind energy sites?

“In general, the strength and persistence of the wind typically increases with elevation, such that the strongest winds are often found at the highest mountain summits. Furthermore, in the northeast United States, winds flow from west to east. For these two reasons, Vermont’s topography is particularly well suited for wind power generation.”

[Italics mine.]Which answers the question, why put any wind farms in Vermont at all? Because its “topography is particularly well suited.”

The report acknowledged the benefits and potential drawbacks of wind energy. Benefits included emission-free power, “free, inexhaustible resources”, financial benefits for communities and landowners, and reducing dependence on imported fuel and long-range power transmission.

The drawbacks included aesthetic concerns and potential impacts on wildlife. Although it noted that “Experience with the Searsburg facility has shown that these impacts can be mitigated through careful site selection and design.”

Also in 2002, landscape architect Jean Vissering wrote “Wind Energy and Vermont’s Scenic Landscape,” a report commissioned by DPS. Vissering noted that “Ridgelines provide the best location for wind generation facilities in Vermont, and elevations between 2000 and 3500 feet above sea level are ideal for maximum power production.” Icing becomes a problem at higher elevations, so no turbines on Mount Mansfield.

Vissering also noted that the Public Service Board “by statute uses most of the criteria of Act 250,” which seems to argue against the need for S.30, now before the Senate. Criterion 8 of Act 250 reads as follows:

‘Will not have an undue adverse effect on the scenic or natural beauty of the area, aesthetics, historic sites or rare and irreplaceable natural areas.’

The report extensively discusses the factors and elements that should be used in determining aesthetic impact, and ways to absolutely minimize visual disruption. (Photos below: Searsburg turbines at a distance of 1/2 mile (left) and four miles (right). From the Visserling report.)

In 2003, DPS commissioned a study of wind power potential on public lands (local, state, and federal). The study reported that less than 3% of Vermont’s total land area has winds that are strong and steady enough to make turbines economically feasible. This land is almost entirely on ridgelines; the report specifically ruled out the Champlain Valley, because the sheltering effect of the Adirondacks and Greens keep the winds below “what is usually required for commercial wind development.”

The number of feasible sites was further diminished by the need for power transmission: “Turbine [sites] that were greater than 7 kilometers (4.35 miles) from existing transmission lines were… eliminated on the basis that it would be close prohibitive to build new transmission facilities.”

Given all the physical limitations on potential turbine sites, it’s clear that wind could never become more than a modest portion of Vermont’s energy portfolio, and it’s completely unrealistic to think that wind farms could ever become more than a small part of our landscape.

2004 brought a brace of “working papers” on wind energy issues released by he Agency of Natural Resources. These show the range of issues given thorough consideration by ANR. A few highlights:

Benefits of wind energy. Earth-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, no impact from mining or transportation of fuels; a diverse array of sources means less dependence on a single source; renewables create jobs, plus financial gains for host communities and landowners; reduces dependence on imported fuels; reduces vulnerability of energy system because renewables are more dispersed.

Aesthetics/Scenic Resource Impacts of wind. Details the many potential effects and how best to limit or eliminate them. Very thorough and detailed.

Erosion and Water Quality Concerns. Notes that high-elevation soils, streams, and wetlands are particularly fragile. Any construction near a high-altitude stream requires a special federal permit. Any alteration of wetlands requires a state permit. Notes that applicants for projects on state lands are required to submit plans for erosion prevention and sedimentation control.

Impacts on wildlife, plant species and natural communities. Cautions that wind turbines “should not be considered on sites where there would be significant cumulative impacts to wildlife populations and important habitats.” This process was diligently applied in Searsburg, resulting in little or no effect on wildlife.

Later that same year, ANR issued a policy on development of wind or other renewable energy sources on state land. It notes ANR’s dual responsibilities in this area: protecting Vermont’s natural landscape, and fostering renewable energy as a way of mitigating the impacts of energy production and climate change.

The report concluded that construction of wind farms or even test towers on ANR lands was inappropriate. It also notes that less than 1% of all ANR lands would be commercially viable for wind energy. The document left the door open to future policy changes, if it is determined that ANR lands are the best sites for wind projects, and that the public interest in wind development outweighs other considerations.

In late 2004, Governor Douglas’ Commission on Wind Energy issued its final report. Douglas has been a consistent critic of ridgeline wind. Indeed, at the time, the only active opposition to wind farms was over aesthetic issues, and Douglas was seen as bowing to wealthy Republican supporters with mountain view property. (Wind was pretty much the only issue on which Douglas was a staunch preservationist. Ski areas, fine; wind, nope.)

The report’s most interesting conclusion is that “Section 248 is the appropriate vehicle for siting commercial wind generation projects.” It said that the Public Service Board should “give due consideration” to Act 250 criteria — which the PSB already did — but recommended against subjecting wind projects to Act 250 review. Pertinent quotes:


“The PSB and the Environmental Board are both experienced at examining environmental impacts. … The Environmental Board and local district commissions that are responsible for Act 250 may not be equipped to deal with these aspects of energy projects.””Overall, the PSB has demonstrated adequate consideration of local and regional input.”

“Applying both Section 248 and Act 250 to proposed wind generation projects would result in a duplicative and inefficient process, and serve to diminish the PSB’s authority to consider statewide “public good” in its deliberations.”

So, in an Administration unfriendly to wind power, the PSB was judged to be adequately considering local and regional input. Hmm. Maybe the accusations of modern-day Windies are a bit, ahem, overblown?

In 2006, ANR issued its “Draft guidelines for the Review and Evaluation of Potential Natural Resource Impacts from Utility-Scale Wind Energy Facilities.” It’s a detailed rundown of the policies and procedures that should be followed in considering large wind projects. It addresses “aesthetics, historic sites, air and water purity, the natural environment and the public health and safety.”:

It outlines necessary consideration of natural features, wildlife habitats, monitoring of stormwater runoff and effects on wetlands and streams. And it outlines needed steps in decommissioning old turbines, including removal of above ground equipment and turbine foundations, and restoring sites and access routes to a “natural” condition.”

Recent years have seen numerous Public Service Board dockets on proposed wind farms. These dockets are lengthy and detailed, and consider all the issues outlined above. Some proposals were amended; some were eventually approved; and at least one was rejected. (Photo: Lowell wind turbines.)

The docket numbers, for those wishing to wade through endless pages of documentation, testimony and reports, are: 6911 (East Mountain Wind, rejected), 7156 (Sheffield), 7250 (Deerfield), 7508 (Georgia Mt.), and 7628 (Lowell). Plus, going back to 1996, Docket 5823 (original Searsburg project).

Anyone who thinks there’s a “mad rush” to build wind turbines should take a look at these dockets. The process is thorough, inclusive, and painstaking. It’s the opposite of rushed. All factors are considered.

In short, the state has built a well-functioning process for considering utility-scale wind proposals. The process has worked very well. The only way you could conclude otherwise is out of a complete, total, blind opposition to any large-scale wind projects in Vermont.