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Testing the winds in Windham

Family business, large utility, and town debate testing stations

To learn more about the project or make comment, visit www.iberdrolarenewables.us/stilesbrook

WINDHAM—Town moderator Michael McLaine said the crowd in the Windham Elementary School auditorium on July 11 numbered more than at Town Meeting.

People stood against the walls and doorways while a few neighbors stood outside and watched through open windows. Mosquitos and deer flies, never ones to miss an opportunity, buzzed the crowd.

The topic to draw more people than the town budget?

Wind.

Meadowsend Timberlands Limited and Atlantic Wind, a subsidiary of Iberdrola Renewables, presented a proposal to site three meteorological (MET) towers on a plateau in the Stiles Brook Forest to determine commercial wind potential. The forest straddles the towns of Grafton and Windham.

The MET towers require a certificate of public good (CPG) from the Public Service Board. Iberdrola would request a three-year permit.

The proposed 196.9 feet tall (60 meters) MET sites are located near a corridor for Vermont Electric Power Co. (VELCO)’s transmission lines. According to Iberdrola’s pre-filing proposal, each tower requires about one acre of cleared land. The towers would not need red, flashing aviation lights.

Iberdrola expects to use existing roads to access the proposed MET sites. A map supplied by the company at the July 11 meeting shows two towers will require new access roads between the VELCO corridor and the tower.

Community member Howie Ires thanked Meadowsend Managing Partner Steven B. French and Managing Forester Jeremy Turner for being “good neighbors,” and finding a reputable utility company to conduct the testing. Despite the anti-wind sentiment in the room, he said he wanted Meadowsend to know community support also existed.

“The town already fought this war,” called a woman in the audience. “Why are you bringing it back?”

A man in the audience said the county had Vermont Yankee, a nuclear plant it didn’t want but the feds said it had to keep.

“I say we stop it [the MET towers] right here,” he said.

Iberdrola is not the first utility company to eye the Windham area. Catamount Energy Corp. and Marubeni Power International, Inc., proposed a commercial wind project for Glebe Mountain. Residents in Londonderry and Windham debated the project, at times bitterly. The companies pulled out in 2006 after overwhelming community opposition.

A changing economy

“Our desire is to test the potential for the wind resource,” said French. “And that is all at this time.”

According to its website, Meadowsend is a forest management company that manages about 30,000 acres of private and public land holdings in New Hampshire and Vermont. The family-owned company manages about 5,000 acres in Windham and Grafton.

Conserving its land for forestry and open for traditional uses such as hiking and snowmobiling is the company’s goal, said Turner.

Company representatives said about 60 percent of its landholdings have permeant conservation easements.

Turner told the audience Meadowsend must “try to adapt to a new world economy.”

“We feel the very important role for us is to explore other options for our ownership,” he said, adding Meadowsend wasn’t Wall Street, but family.

Turner who, as a college student, started working in the Windham and Grafton forests in 1996, said that “these are big real world things that are here today in our Vermont towns.”

First Wind’s Sheffield Wind project also sits on Meadowsend property.

Iberdrola representative Jenny Briot said that Meadowsend approached the renewables company to evaluate the viability of wind in the Windham and Grafton area.

According to Briot, Iberdrola owns, operates or has proposed more than 50 wind projects in the United States, including the Deerfield Wind Project on U.S. Forest Service land in the towns of Readsboro and Searsburg.

Briot said that electricity generated by the wind project, if built, would go into the grid. Most of it will stay in the state.

“Local, clean energy for Vermonters, here,” she said.

In response to an audience question, Briot said she was aware that Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin supported wind projects. But, she added, Meadowsend and Iberdrola only wanted to determine the potential for wind. If the town votes against a future project “we will respect that.” She said she couldn’t speak for Meadowsend’s next step.

Iberdrola presented materials at the meeting as part of the requirements under Vermont’s Statutes Sections 246 and 248. Section 248 governs gas and electric projects. Section 246 deals specifically with temporary MET towers. The section serves to streamline the permitting process, according to PSB clerk Sue Hudson.

The materials Iberdrola presented fall into a 30-day pre-filing period. Interested parties have 30 days to respond to Iberdrola’s proposal for what it calls the Stiles Brook Wind Project.

Vermont-sized projects

At the Windham Selectboard’s invitation, Executive Director Annette Smith of Vermonters for a Clean Environment (VCE), and Luke Snelling, executive director of the advocacy group Energize Vermont, both spoke.

“[Wind is] a complicated subject with a lot of complex issues,” said Smith. She urged Windham not to allow a potential wind farm to divide the community like it did in Sheffield and Lowell.

Smith characterized Iberdrola as a foreign corporation that walks away with billions in profits and receives tax subsides. Meanwhile, she said, host towns receive zero dollars.

“And [money] is really what this is all about,” Smith said.

Smith said wind farms in Vermont have translated into negative impacts on residents’ health from the wind towers’ noise and the spinning blades creating a “flicker effect.” According to Smith, noises at 45 decibels harm human health. Readings at Sheffield hit 45 decibels, even at 1.5 miles away.

Environmental impacts, she said, range from the fragmenting of animal habitat, polluting previously clean water sources with construction and run off from access roads, and danger to birds and bats. She also said that the towers can pose safety risks by throwing ice from their blades, collapsing, or catching fire.

Smith also felt there was a flaw in the oversight of wind projects. The wind developers are the same people hiring the consulting and environmental firms conducting the environmental studies.

She added that the PSB would not help Vermonters in the process.

Snelling said that Energize Vermont advocated for community-based, “Vermont-sized,” renewable energy projects that keep the lights on while preserving Vermont’s character.

He described commercial wind projects as costs for the 99 percent and profits for the 1 percent.

Snelling told the audience that making houses more energy efficient would be a better first step than a commercial wind farm. He said he could support a small-scale wind project built by and for a community.

While echoing Smith’s concerns, Snelling also spoke about economic and community impacts. He said Vermont could accomplish its renewable energy goals with solar rather than massive commercial wind farms.

“These are huge 400-foot to 450-foot towers. Nothing in Vermont is that tall,” he said.

According to Snelling, a 2,400 megawatt solar project would meet the state’s renewable goals.

He also told people to do their homework. Absent knowledge, well-funded Wall Street companies take over a town and walk away with the profits, 30 percent of which, he added, came from tax breaks.

The audience applauded.

Snelling urged the audience to squash the Stiles Brook Wind Project at the MET tower stage if it wasn’t right for the community.

“The reality is what comes first is the MET towers, and then what comes second is all this stuff,” Snelling said.

Energy and forests

In response to an audience member, Turner said Meadowsend had not explored solar. His experience with renewables had pointed toward wind as more compatible with managing working forests. Trees can still grow and people can still hike under wind towers, he said.

After the meeting, Turner said Meadowsend’s end goal has been, and will remain, maintaining an intact and working forest.

The company has also explored economic strategies like cutting leases, selling development rights, and conservation easements. Some of these options have panned out, others haven’t, he said.

Turner said that the company would also consider solar.

Selectboard chair Mary Boyer closed the meeting. She read a statement prepared by the board earlier that day saying “no” to wind towers.

Boyer told the audience, “Don’t take a position without thinking it through and doing some of your own research. There is a lot of good information out there and too much at stake here.”

According to a community survey conducted after the Glebe Mountain project, by a margin of 287 to 15, residents said they didn’t want a commercial wind farm in town, said Boyer.

These numbers prompted the town to write its distaste for commercial wind into the town plan and zoning.

Commercial wind is not permitted in Windham, she said.

“We would like the governor to know that unequivocally,” she said. “We would ask the governor how he expects the fourth smallest town in the 49th smallest state to advocate for ourselves against a multi-national corporation with more than $40 billion in revenue.”

To French of Meadowsend, Boyer said the board understood his family’s economic concerns. The residents faced the same problems. But Meadowsend’s investment “pales in comparison with the investment made by those of us who actually live here.”

Boyer called on the audience to return home and talk to friends, family, neighbors, the Selectboard, and legislators.

“Tell them that Windham wants to start another conversation where, rather than just saying no to big wind, we talk about the things we can say yes to, and move in that direction,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #161 (Wednesday, July 18, 2012).

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