Grafton residents weigh in on proposed wind farm

Meeting presents pros, cons of renewable energy

GRAFTON — About 125 residents from Windham and Grafton crowded into the White Chapel Monday night to hear from a panel of six speakers to discuss a proposed wind farm that straddles both towns.

The meeting was organized by Liisa Kissel of Friends of Grafton Heritage, with state Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, as moderator.

Iberdrola, operating as Atlantic Wind LLC, is a Spanish company and the second-largest wind company in the United States.

The firm seeks to erect three meteorological test towers (METs) to gauge the site's suitability for installing wind turbines.

Two of the towers are in Windham, and the third is in Grafton within less than a mile of the closest houses.

Kissel noted that this was the first meeting in Grafton since Iberdrola first surveyed the private property in 2011, and came before the Grafton and Windham Selectboards in June 2012, that the “other” side had been heard.

She said Iberdrola has also been courting residents and giving tours of the Lempster, N.H., site on four occasions, once for town officials and three times for the public, as well as distributing pamphlets door-to-door.

Currently, a petition is in the works that calls for amending the Grafton Town Plan to ban large-scale renewable projects, Kissel said.

Windham Selectboard Chair Mary Boyer said her town's town plan prohibits such projects altogether. The town plan clearly prohibits any use of its ridgelines for any commercial wind energy, citing its sensitivity as a natural habitat, but does not prohibit MET towers.

Benjamin Luce, assistant professor of natural sciences and physics at Lyndon State College, was the keynote speaker, providing a comprehensive look at the pros and cons of building wind turbines on ridge tops in Vermont.

Luce is a founder and former director of the Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy, former president of the New Mexico Solar Energy Association, and a former renewable energy program manager at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Luce saw successful adoption of a renewable energy standard and a production tax credit for wind power in New Mexico that led to the installation of several hundred megawatts of wind generation on the Eastern Plains of New Mexico. So he has seen the successful side of wind energy, he said.

But Luce questioned whether ridge-top wind turbines were the right solution to the climate crisis for Vermont, given the return in energy, as well as cost effectiveness.

Laying out his research in an abbreviated presentation, he cited concerns of a very expensive renewable energy that, among other things, depended on commodities like cement, copper, and steel which have seen a sharp rise in cost over the last decade. He noted solar energy production was not dependent on such volatile markets.

His other arguments against the suitability of ridge-top wind turbines in the state included three words from a survey that describe what people come to Vermont to see - “unspoiled, beautiful, mountains” - qualities that are inconsistent with wind turbines along the ridges of the Green Mountains.

He also cited the divisive nature of the issue and its social implications to communities, noting that the issue has created huge divides in communities in Lowell and Sheffield, which have yet to mend - a point illustrated later in the meeting, when several angry residents had to be reminded by the moderator to treat one another with respect.

Other arguments from panelists included sound and noise issues that are just starting to be understood around the Lowell site, even from supporters of the Green Mountain Power wind farm atop Lowell Mountain. The site can be seen and heard in the neighboring towns of Albany and Craftsbury, but residents of those towns had no real say in its development, panelists observed.

Declining property values associated with the presence of wind turbines were described by Lempster resident and panelist Justin Lindholm.

“Almost all of properties within a mile of the [Lempster] wind farm are up for sale,” he said.

The issue of property value was confirmed by real estate broker Phil Atwood, who said, “Customers won't even look at a property once they know there are wind turbines nearby.”

The amount of kilowatt energy that can be generated from ridge-top turbines, compared to the demand in Vermont, is around 3.3 percent, according to Luce.

“That doesn't make sense in terms of cost effectiveness,” he said.

He noted that, once the storage issue is resolved, solar energy is cheaper in the long run. Maintenance costs are minimal, and the environmental impact is less compared to the installation and production of ridge top turbines, most of the parts of which are not produced in the United States.

Luce said the four biggest contributors to carbon emissions in Vermont, in order of severity, are transportation, home and residential heating, commercial and industrial processes, and agricultural processes.

“We would do better to find solutions directed at those issues,” he said.

Following the meeting, vocal supporter and Grafton resident Bill Kearns spoke with Iberdrola Renewables representative Jenny Briot about setting up another meeting for further discussion in the near future. Kissel responded to audience requests to hear both sides and said they would work on getting another meeting together.

Briot was taking notes and said the meeting provided helpful information for the company to address the concerns of the residents of both towns.

Several residents felt the panel was biased, and said they wanted another discussion to hear from both sides. Kissel responded that she would look into setting that up.

Meanwhile, the permit application process puts the decision in the hands of the Public Service Board, which will make the final decision, perhaps in the next five weeks.

Briot said if it is approved, they will proceed with plans to install the meteorological test towers immediately.