VERNON—Town residents have spent months debating the pros and cons of hosting a natural gas-fired power plant, but the lack of a specific site has been a sticking point for many.
At a public forum Feb. 3, a potential answer for that important question came not from the front of the room — where Vernon Planning Commission members sat — but instead from the back, where resident Art Miller announced that part of his family’s dairy farm along Route 142 is under consideration as a plant site.
“We have been approached by the developers,” Miller said.
“Within our own family, we’ve been discussing this topic,” he added. “We’ve kind of waited to see what the (March 1) town referendum would be, because we don’t want to be in the middle of conflict.”
After the meeting, the man who has been leading plant development efforts confirmed that he has discussed acquiring Miller Farm land on the eastern side of Route 142, just north of the substation outside Vermont Yankee.
While Winhall resident Don Campbell wouldn’t rule out other sites for the facility, he acknowledged that the Miller property is the best.
“Of all the sites that we’ve looked at, that’s the ideal situation because of the proximity to the substation,” Campbell said.
For more than a year, Vernon Planning Commission has been meeting with Campbell, who has experience in utility investment, and his partner, Hervey Scudder of Brattleboro.
They’ve been discussing an opportunity that Campbell described as “the sun, the moon, and the stars in alignment”: Not long after the shutdown of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, energy giant Kinder Morgan has proposed a natural-gas pipeline that would pass through northern Massachusetts.
The idea is to build an approximately 7-mile spur from that pipeline into Vernon, with the gas feeding a power plant that would tie into the massive electrical infrastructure that Vermont Yankee used for more than four decades.
There are a lot of uncertainties. For one thing, federal regulators have not yet approved Kinder Morgan’s pipeline, which has prompted vehement opposition in some Massachusetts and New Hampshire communities.
Also, the Vernon plant proposal has not been fully fleshed out. Officials have said an approximately 600 megawatt facility that could cost $750 million is under consideration, but there’s been no formal announcement of a specific site or plant design.
That has led to some skepticism. At the Feb. 3 forum, resident David Andrews questioned a proposed plant completion date of 2019 or 2020, citing the approvals that would be needed from federal and state regulators as well as from ISO New England, which operates the regional power grid.
“This just doesn’t seem to me as though it’s on the ground, realistic and something that’s doable,” Andrews said.
Andrews compared the plant development process thus far to a hard-sell experience at an auto dealership. But Campbell defended that process, telling a crowd of more than 70 people at Vernon Elementary that “we’ve been doing community involvement for the past year and a half, two years.”
Campbell also said he wants to see the results of a March 1 non-binding referendum vote before proceeding with further investment and design work. There will be a separate voting station set up at the town office that day for consideration of the gas plant question.
“Once we get past the referendum, a lot more things will become transparent,” Campbell said.
That vote also is critical for Planning Commission members, with Chairman Bob Spencer pledging to drop the matter if the results indicate no public appetite for a gas plant.
“We want to see what the town votes March 1. Is this something you want to continue?” Spencer told the crowd. “If the vote is no, we’re done. Frankly, it’s a lot of time for a volunteer board. We have other issues we could deal with.”
Prior to the Feb. 3 meeting — and even as the session began — Planning Commission members acknowledged that many questions remained unanswered and that they could not say exactly where a plant might be located. Generally, commission member Martin Langeveld said, the facility would have to be “within a reasonable distance of the existing substation or switchyard.”
But Miller changed the conversation later in the meeting when he said his family is considering selling a piece of the Miller Farm — which is celebrating its centennial this year — for the gas plant. He said the family is open to the possibility in part because of doubts about other forms of energy production.
Biomass-burning plants, Miller contends, could lead to deforestation. He’s also not keen on the large-scale power-generation possibilities of wind turbines or new hydroelectric facilities.
Miller said his family also is concerned about large solar installations eating up agricultural land. Developers have “offered us insane amounts of money to sell the farm to put up solar,” Miller said. “To us, solar is not a viable option.”
On the other hand, “the gas plant seems like a very viable option for us to consider,” Miller said.
Not everyone feels that way, though. There have been persistent concerns about a gas plant’s safety and environmental impacts, and those surfaced again at the Feb. 3 forum.
“How many thousands of tons (of emissions) are going to come out of there every year?” asked resident David Webb, adding that “everything I’ve read indicates that (pollution) is going to affect kids.”
Planning Commission member Brett Morrison responded by saying his own research shows that there will be “very limited to negligible health impacts on kids or others.”
Commission members started the evening by making a presentation about the plant proposal. To some extent, it was similar to a presentation at a November forum. Detailed information from both meetings is available at www.vernonvermont.org.
Officials again discussed the plant’s potential for positive economic impacts, especially given Vermont Yankee’s decreasing tax value and the likelihood that residents’ property taxes will be rising.
A gas plant, Langeveld said, could provide important tax revenue and stabilize the local real estate market.
There also was new information about permitting, as Spencer led meeting attendees through a maze of state and federal regulations governing construction of both the pipeline spur and the plant.
In the state’s Certificate of Public Good process, there are many opportunities for public comment, officials said.
That echoed a key point made repeatedly during the Feb. 3 forum: If the town votes “yes” in the March 1 referendum, officials said, that’s only the first of the public’s chances to scrutinize the gas plant project.
“All that vote means is, ‘We want to keep going with the process,’” Planning Commission member Janet Rasmussen said.