WINDHAM—A developer that has proposed Windham County’s first commercial wind turbines will have another two years to study the weather at the secluded project site in the towns of Windham and Grafton.
The Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) has granted the request of Atlantic Wind LLC — the local business name of international wind-power developer Iberdrola Renewables — to allow its meteorological-testing towers to continue gathering data until December 2017.
The extension was approved despite objections from the town of Windham, where officials argued that their revised town plan “specifically prohibits both meteorological towers and commercial wind-energy systems.”
Iberdrola’s requested extension represented a “substantial change” to the company’s plans, the town argued, so the new town plan should apply.
But the PSB, in an order dated Sept. 3, disagreed.
“In this case, the petitioner [Iberdrola] is requesting only that the time period the meteorological stations remain at the sites be extended by an additional two years,” the board’s order says.
“The petitioner is not proposing any modifications to the existing stations or to the conditions of approval. The stations will remain as temporary installations. Therefore, granting the extension as requested will not create any new impacts under the applicable criteria, not will it affect the public good of the state.”
In 2012, Iberdrola Renewables first pitched its plan to explore wind resources at the Stiles Brook Forest, a roughly 5,000-acre tract owned by New Hampshire-based Meadowsend Timberlands Ltd. Company administrators are interested in hosting turbines both for environmental and financial reasons, and they’ve said they want to continue managing Stiles Brook for the long term.
The company has established an office in Grafton as well as a website dedicated to the Stiles Brook project, www.stilesbrookforest.com.
Local opponents — especially in the town of Windham, where the town plan bans such turbines — have questioned the viability and environmental impacts of wind power. Windham officials also have testified before the Vermont Legislature on the question of where and how to site large turbines.
In spite of that opposition, the Public Service Board in December 2012 granted a three-year certificate of public good for Iberdrola to erect three meteorological-testing towers on the property. Those towers started functioning in April 2013.
But Iberdrola administrators have said it is a long process to gauge the suitability of the site, and they have not said how many turbines they might try to build there. State documents say Atlantic Wind in July asked for more time for its studies.
“The petitioner states that it needs to gather additional wind data in order to further characterize the wind regime in the area and to assist in the identification of wind turbine models appropriate for the site,” the PSB order says.
Officials with both the state Department of Public Service and the state Agency of Natural Resources filed letters saying they did not object to such an extension. But Windham — where the 2015 town plan tightened and expanded language opposing wind turbines — opposed the extension.
The PSB, in addition to noting that the two-year extension would not change the meteorological towers or their purpose, also wrote that “Windham has not shown what, if any, impacts that granting the extension will result in or explained why this would represent a substantial change to the project.”
“While Windham objects to the granting of the extension, it has not provided the board with a basis upon which to reject the request,” the order says.
Windham Selectboard Chairwoman Mary Boyer, in reaction to the state's decision, simply reiterated the town's objection to Iberdrola's plans.
“I can tell you that Windham has opposed this project from the very beginning because we believe the site is inappropriate for a variety of reasons, all of which are spelled out clearly in our town plan,” Boyer wrote. “That position has not changed.”
Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman said the state’s extension “does not change the project timeline, one way or the other, that we first shared with the communities of Grafton and Windham almost 18 months ago.”
A graphic on the Stiles Brook website estimates that construction would happen in 2019 “if favorable permitting decisions are obtained.”
“It’s fairly typical for us to have more than three years of wind data when evaluating any site, especially a complex site such as this, which is a large plateau with elevation variation and multiple features that can interfere with the wind flow,” Copleman wrote in an email.
“The goal remains to undertake the due diligence necessary to understand the wind and determine if the site is viable, which takes a lot of time and science,” he wrote.
The state’s extension also was praised by Jeremy Turner, Meadowsend’s managing forester.
“Our position as the owner is that, in the spirit of being a good land steward, we want to be certain that, with this kind of a project, this is the right place for it,” Turner said last week.
Turner added that he is interested in “accountability and being completely confident” that wind turbines are right for Stiles Brook before proceeding. That takes time, he said.
“Everybody’s got to be sure that this is accurate and justifiable,” Turner said. “We can’t just assume, because it’s high up in southern Vermont, that it’s good wind.”
‘They told us virtually nothing’
Windham officials have argued that there are far too many assumptions being made in Vermont when it comes to permitting wind installations — even the preliminary testing towers.
In testimony prepared for state legislators in April, Windham Selectboard member Frank Seawright argued that “we believe there must be substantive community engagement before a developer is allowed to approach the PSB for an initial certificate of public good for the installation of wind-measuring (MET) towers.”
In the case of the current Iberdrola proposal, “when the landowner and the wind developer first approached the town of Windham, they told us virtually nothing about project details,” Seawright wrote.
“The developer deflected our questions, claiming ignorance of specifics pending completion of wind studies. To put the matter simply: The developer wanted to know if there is an adequate wind resource, but the community wanted to know what a wind installation would mean for our community and region.
“The community’s question is an urgent one, touching upon the daily lives of the populace. Nonetheless, the developer received an initial CPG for wind measurement without disclosing project details.
“The result for the people of Windham: Prolonged fear, opposition, and divisiveness, the negative effects of which will be felt for years in our town, regardless of whether turbines are installed here,” Seawright wrote.