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Senators introduce wind moratorium bill

Calls for three-year delay on large projects

Commons reporter Allison Teague contributed to this report.

State Sens. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, and Joseph Benning, R-Caledonia, say they will introduce a bill this legislative session that would establish a three-year moratorium on wind projects with a production capacity of more than 500 kilowatts.

Hartwell and Benning say they drafted the bill in response to increasing public pressure from their constituents who want to slow down the Vermont Public Service Board’s (PSB) permitting process for renewable energy developers, and to allow for more participation and consideration of municipal guidelines and time to assess health and environmental concerns raised by constituents.

However, Gov. Peter Shumlin has said that, while he acknowledges there has been local opposition to some large-scale wind projects, he is strongly opposed to a moratorium on wind power development.

Benning and Hartwell disagree, and believe the state should take time to assess how these projects are sited. They want to see if such projects are cost-effective and environmentally appropriate for Vermont.

“We shouldn’t permit ourselves to be pressured by corporate, mostly out-of-state entities, while we take that time,” said Hartwell.

“We shouldn’t be allowing our cherished mountains, our cherished history to be destroyed while we take that time,” he said. “We shouldn’t involve ourselves in social upheaval while we take that time.”

“For that reason, a bipartisan effort ... is being made to make sure we back up the train, set the reset button and redefine a conversation with Vermont’s history and environmental pro-activism involved in the discussion.”

Their proposal comes one year after the Senate shot down a similar draft legislation Benning sponsored, which called for a two-year moratorium on wind projects that are 2.2 megawatts or greater.

Benning and Hartwell’s proposal also calls for stripping the PSB of its power to permit in-state electric generating plants and would give that jurisdiction to district environmental commissions and local land use authorities, except in the case of net metering systems.

This component of the draft bill appears to runs against the grain of a bill Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, plans to put forward, which would call for a larger regional — rather than local — approach to planning and permitting such projects.

Both Klein and House Speaker Shap Smith are opposed to a moratorium.

Many of Vermont’s most influential environmental groups also oppose the proposal, including the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), the Conservation Law Foundation, 350Vermont, the Vermont Natural Resources Council, the Citizens Awareness Network, the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club, and many others.

Opponents of the wind moratorium say that such a measure would be a step backwards in Vermont’s push to be a global leader in environmental stewardship and renewable energy.

After Tropical Storm Irene and other benchmark weather disasters, VPIRG Director Paul Burns said Vermont should be part of the climate change solution and not the problem. Others argue that a moratorium would be bad for business and be irresponsible for a state that prides itself on local ways of life.

Residents and groups in favor of the moratorium — like Luke Snelling’s Energize Vermont and Annette Smith’s Vermonters for a Clean Environment, or VCE — argue that construction of large-scale wind is not so clean. They argue that leveling mountaintops and cementing long platforms for towering turbines is ruining Vermont’s mountains and harming its wildlife.

They also point to widespread local opposition to projects around the state, from Green Mountain Power’s 21-turbine project in Lowell to a proposed 20-turbine project on Grandpa’s Knob ridgeline in Rutland.

Local impact

Locally, three meteorological test towers (MET) slated for Grafton and Windham will be going up as soon as the weather permits, according to developer Atlantic Wind LLC, who got the nod from the PSB on Dec. 20 to move forward.

Atlantic Wind LLC told Windham residents last summer, if MET towers are successful, there could be at least 15 wind turbines, and perhaps as many as 50, on a 5,000-acre ridge-top site that straddles Grafton and Windham, owned by Meadowsend Timber LLC.

Some of the issues that the new bill could address the town of Windham’s town plan that was overruled by board’s ruling in favor of the developer. Windham’s arguments against Atlantic Winds LLC project were based on their 2007 town plan which prohibits commercial wind projects but, in a quirk of timing, allows MET towers.

The town plan was written just as Act 30, Section 248a was being revised, adding Section 246, specifically to shorten the permitting process for the smaller MET towers application permitting process.

“I see problems regarding the PSB decision in Windham,” Benning said. “The PSB considers MET tower permits separately from wind plant permits. The impact of a MET tower is miniscule in comparison to a full-scale wind generator, so it never surprises me to see these permits routinely granted.”

Windham resident and state Rep. Carolyn Partridge commented that she had not seen the language of the Benning and Hartwell bill.

“If there is a problem with the process (of permitting), we need to look at the process,” she said.

Benning said that MET towers “should be considered for what they are — the first step in a two-step process that results in massive degradation of a mountaintop’s physical environment.

“The second step is the inevitable construction of massive wind towers that routinely follows MET towers. While it is also supposed to consider Act 250 criteria, [which] normally [would] be used by local district environmental commissions to require developers to meet that criterion, the PSB is only required to give ‘due consideration’ to that criteria.

“This is resulting in real mountaintop environmental destruction taking a back seat to any renewable benefit goal perceived by the PSB,” Benning concluded.

Of their bill, Benning said, “If our studies conclude that this high-priced, intermittent power is worth the environmental destruction and social upheaval it is causing, then a three year time out will not mean the end of the world. If, on the other hand, our studies show this particular tool is the wrong one for Vermont, then our time will have been well spent.”

Since October, the Vermont Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission has been mandated to hear comments and concerns from utilities, renewable energy developers, and Vermont residents during sessions held in Montpelier, from October and continuing through Jan. 11. The commission then heads into deliberations which are scheduled to conclude Feb. 5, releasing their findings shortly thereafter.

How the Hartwell-Benning bill, if passed, will affect commercial wind projects that are in various stages of development and completion, is as yet unclear.

The Governor’s Siting Commission’s findings will be released in February.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #185 (Wednesday, January 9, 2013).

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