Editorial: Energy projects have a real and significant impact

copyright the Chronicle October 15, 2014

by Tena Starr


Vermont’s siting process for renewable energy projects so lacks planning that it may have the unintended effect of turning people off renewable energy, despite the fact that they support it in theory.

To date, there’s been this: The Nelson family has said that the noise from the Lowell wind towers has made them sick. In Sheffield, the Therriens say the noise from the wind turbines has made them sick and irreparably altered their lives.

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Sheffield wind: Therriens to appeal reappraisal denial

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Luann Therrien in the front yard of her home in Sheffield.   Photo by Tena Starr

Luann Therrien in the front yard of her home in Sheffield. Photo by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle October 8, 2014

by Tena Starr

SHEFFIELD — It was a spectacular Friday afternoon in October — blue sky, warm weather, and the wind rustling the leaves on the trees.

Beneath that sound, however, there was a low grinding noise in Steve and Luann Therrien’s front yard.

“It’s not something that goes on every day,” Ms. Therrien said. “But it’s been all day today and all day yesterday.”

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Nelsons and GMP reach settlement

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Shirley and Don Nelson at their home in July of 2013.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Shirley and Don Nelson at their home in July of 2013. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle April 16, 2014

by Bethany M. Dunbar

LOWELL — Don and Shirley Nelson have reached a settlement with Green Mountain Power that says the power company will pay them $1.3-million for their home and 540 acres of their farm.

The couple has up to two years to stay in their home and will keep 35 acres of the property on the Albany side of the town line.

The Nelsons said in a statement that they intend to “move from their farm to a location well away from the turbines.”

They said the place has been in the family for 72 years.

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In the Legislature: Local control in wind siting unlikely

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David Mealiea and Anna Dirkse, both of Burlington, were two of four singing pickets who stood outside the State House last Thursday in support of raising the minimum wage.  “We fight for human rights so all can be free,” they sang.  Photo by Paul Lefebvre

David Mealiea and Anna Dirkse, both of Burlington, were two of four singing pickets who stood outside the State House last Thursday in support of raising the minimum wage. “We fight for human rights so all can be free,” they sang. Photo by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle March 26, 2014

by Paul Lefebvre

MONTPELIER — Regional and local planners are expected to be the big losers in a bill to open up the siting process for ridgeline industrial wind projects.

Scheduled to appear on the Senate floor, the bill was rerouted to the Senate Committee on Appropriations Tuesday as negotiations continued behind the scenes to strike a compromise and keep it alive.

“Unfortunately, regional planning is one of those things we’re probably not going to wind up with,” said Senator John Rodgers of Glover during a telephone interview Tuesday.

One of the stated purposes of the bill was “to strengthen the role of planning commissions and local selectboard and planning commissions in the siting review process for energy facilities by giving greater weight to their recommendations and plans.”

But at the end of the day, that’s not likely what’s going to happen.

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UTG reject Seneca Wind

copyright the Chronicle January 15, 2014

by Paul Lefebvre

FERDINAND — Community opposition in three of the most remote northern towns of the Northeast Kingdom have shut the door on hosting what would have been the third industrial wind project planned for the region’s ridgelines.

On Monday, the Unified Towns and Gores (UTG) joined Brighton and Newark in rejecting a proposal to build a ridgeline wind project on Seneca Mountain.

The decision came on the strength of a referendum mailed to property owners, whose ballots were counted in the UTG office in Ferdinand Monday night.

By a margin of 171 to 107, voters rejected the project and left little choice but for the UTG five-member board of governors to follow suit.

“The board has agreed to support the vote, and that’s what we intend to do,” said Chairman Barbara Nolan, after the results of the vote were announced.

There was also little room to maneuver for Eolian Renewable Energy, the company that had been spearheading a project that came to be known as Seneca Mountain Wind (SMW).  The company had repeatedly vowed that the project would rise or fall on the results of the vote.

“We are committed to abide by the local vote,” said a disappointed John Soininen, a company vice-president who was present during the counting of the ballots.

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In the UTGs: Has industrial wind worn out its welcome?

UTG webby Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle 11-13-2013

ISLAND POND — Seneca Mountain wind developers stuck their head in the lion’s den here Monday night, and the lion roared back.

Eolian Renewable Energy is proposing a 20-turbine project for Seneca Mountain that would be sited exclusively in the town of Ferdinand, a small, sprawling community and a member of the Unified Towns and Gores (UTG). Continue reading

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Lowell wind: Neighbors sick and tired of turbine noise

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Rita and Paul Martin at their home on the Eden Road in Albany.  The Lowell Mountain turbines dominate the view behind them, though the camera used in this photo was barely able to capture them.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Rita and Paul Martin at their home on the Eden Road in Albany. The Lowell Mountain turbines dominate the view behind them, though the camera used in this photo was barely able to capture them. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite

ALBANY — Jim and Kathy Goodrich have a nice home with a porch along the entire west side that overlooks acres of neatly trimmed lawn and, about a mile away, the long, sinuous ridgeline known as Lowell Mountain.

Now that view is dominated by the 21 towers of the Lowell wind project, their blades reaching 460 feet high.  And the house is for sale at a discounted price.

“What I came here for is gone,” said Ms. Goodrich, a Wolcott native who worked for IBM in Chittenden County and then spent ten years with her husband in a landscaping business.

“This was going to be where I spent the rest of my life — quiet, peaceful, relaxed,” Ms. Goodrich continued.  “But I can’t stay here.”

One of the features their home has lost is the quiet, the couple says.

“Sometimes they’re really loud,” Ms. Goodrich said.  In one hot spell, with the bedroom windows open and two fans running, she recalls, “I could hear them over everything.  It was some kind of roar.”

“It’s really hard to explain what it sounds like,” Mr. Goodrich said.  “To me, it’s mechanized gears, but mixed in with a swoosh, swoosh, swoosh.”

He suspects that the turbines often exceed the limits imposed when the state Public Service Board (PSB) gave the project its certificate of public good.  Mr. Goodrich sounds unconvinced by Green Mountain Power’s claim that its turbines have remained within those limits — 45 decibels outside, 35 inside — 99 percent of the time since they began to spin in late 2012.

Ms. Goodrich thinks the noise limits miss the point.

“I don’t doubt that most of the time they’re in compliance,” she said Monday.  “But to me, those guidelines are too much for people to handle, hour after hour after hour.”

The couple is not sure whether the turbines are affecting their health.  Mr. Goodrich recently experienced blade flicker for the first time, as the sun set behind the turbines and cast their moving shadows into the house.

Jim and Kathy Goodrich on their front porch, with Sophie.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Jim and Kathy Goodrich on their front porch, with Sophie. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

“That really irritated me,” he said.  As a young man, he said, he couldn’t go into a disco club because of the effect strobe lights had on him.  “That night it really freaked me,” he said of the flicker.

As for the noise, Mr. Goodrich said, “I’ve got an idea it’s affecting my health, but I don’t know.  I know it has an effect on our talking to each other.  I get cranky.  She gets cranky.”

“It’s frustrating,” Ms. Goodrich agreed.  “It’s beyond our control.  I can ask him to turn the TV down, but they don’t listen up there,” she added, gesturing to the turbines.

Underlying the couple’s personal concerns is their anger about the project’s environmental impact.

“For me it’s about what they did to the top of the mountain,” Ms. Goodrich said.  “I’m a Vermonter.  I respect what we have here.  Now that it’s there it’s the interrupted views, the noise, the stress it’s brought into our lives.  It’s everything.

“I wouldn’t have any problem in the world with green power,” she continued.  “But it seems that they took away more green than they’ll ever give back.”

The third member of the household, a small dog named Sophie, “gets really skittish when the turbines are noisy,” Ms. Goodrich said.  “At times I can’t get her to take a walk down the driveway.”

Molly Two lives just down the hill, where Goodrich Road meets the Eden Road.  The big dog sticks close to Paul Martin if he takes her outside when the turbines are running.  She has become gun shy, and she’s started going to the bathroom on the floor of the Martin house.

The Martins’ horses were spooked by the turbines at first, Mr. Martin said, but seem to have grown used to them now.

When the wind’s right they hear the turbines outside.  Mr. Martin described the noise as “just a big rumble like a jet.”

“With a lot of that thud, thud thud,” his wife, Rita, added.

When he goes outside, Mr. Martin said, “my ears will start ringing to beat hell.  They never did that before.”

As for Ms. Martin, he said, “She woke me up one night and said ‘My heart is pounding terrible.’  I could hear the thud thud from the towers.”

“For some reason my heart wanted to beat in that rhythm,” Ms. Martin recalled.

“We were told we wouldn’t hear them” by the people from Green Mountain Power, Mr. Martin said.

Since they’ve put an air conditioner in the bedroom the turbine noise doesn’t disturb their sleep, the Martins said, though they still hear them on some nights.

When they moved onto the Eden Road in 1974, their place was at the end of the road.  Now, the Martins say, people wanting to view the turbines generate considerable traffic past their home.

They say they’ve thought about moving, but are not sure they could sell their homestead.

“Who’d buy it?” Ms. Martin asked with a shrug.

“What most bothers me is the destruction it’s done on top of the mountain,” Mr. Martin said.

“Paul’s taken both our kids up the mountain,” before the turbines arrived, his wife said.  “Thank God he did, too.  It will never be the same.”

Shirley and Don Nelson flank a sign that is common in their neighborhood.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Shirley and Don Nelson flank a sign that is common in their neighborhood. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

A bit closer to the turbines, at her home on the Bailey-Hazen Road, Shirley Nelson has a list of symptoms that have arrived since the wind project started spinning.  She has a ringing in her ears, and sometimes worse.

“This morning it felt like a pin sticking in my ear,” she said Monday.  “I have headaches, usually around my temples but sometimes like a band wrapped right around my head.

“One of my daughters gets migraines within an hour of visiting our house,” Ms. Nelson added.

“Both Donny and I wake up in the middle of the night because it sounds like something coming out of the pillow,” she said, referring to her husband, Don.  “I never said much about it, because I thought I was crazy.”

Then she found a research paper by Alec Salt, Ph.D., from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, entitled “Wind Turbines can be Hazardous to Human Health.”

He writes about very low frequency sound and infrasound, which wind turbines generate in turbulent winds.  “Our measurements show the ear is most sensitive to infrasound when other, audible sounds are at low levels or absent,” Dr. Salt writes.

Thus infrasound can be most troublesome when other sounds are blocked by house walls or even a pillow, he continues.  “In either case, the infrasound will be strongly stimulating the ear even though you will not be able to hear it.”

That can cause sleep disturbance, panic, and chronic sleep deprivation leading to high blood pressure, the paper says.

“Some days I am very tired,” Ms. Nelson wrote in an e-mail Monday.  It is hard to stay awake on such days, she added, and “it is hard to concentrate and I find I am unable to do simple things like balancing a checkbook.”

The Nelsons routinely see turbine flicker in their home as the sun goes behind the towers.  It sends shadows spinning slowly across their refrigerator, their floors and across the lawns outside.

“It’s just really annoying,” Ms. Nelson said.

Dislike of the turbines and their effects is not universal in the neighborhood.  Albert and Esther Weber live a little west of the Martins on the Eden Road, just across the Lowell town line.

“I hear them, but they’re not offensive to me,” Mr. Weber said.  “I figure the wind should do some good for a change.  The wind ripped the roof off my house.  It should make some electricity, and it should make our taxes go down.

“I love the windmills,” Ms. Weber said.  “I’ve always loved windmills since I was a girl in school, and learned about Holland.  When they said they were going to put some up here, I was thrilled.”

She likes to see the towers glowing on the mountain in the early morning light, and finds that the afternoon shadows flickering in the backyard “look kind of neat.”

Further down the road Carl Cowles said he hears the turbines almost all the time, and they bother him.  “I think I hear them more at night than in the daytime,” Mr. Cowles added.  “I do wake up, and I hear them.  I don’t know exactly what woke me up.”

When he’s not traveling around the world on business, Kevin McGrath lives on the other side of the mountain on the Farm Road in Lowell.  He recalls a visit from a friend, another Lowell resident who had voted in favor of the wind project.  Mr. McGrath was complaining about the turbine noise.

“He said, ‘We’ll listen for the noise as soon as the jet plane goes away.’  I said, ‘That is the noise.’”

“It sounds like a plane that never lands,” he said.  He measures the sound with a hand-held meter.

“At times it is under 45 decibels outside,” he reports.  “You don’t have anything to say.  This is the way it is.”

“People like myself, who have had the land for 20 or 25 years, aren’t used to this new intrusion into their lives.  If you have a leaky faucet in your sink, is it below 35 decibels?  Yes it is.  But not being able to turn it off will drive you crazy.  It’s an intrusion.”

Mr. McGrath has bombarded the Department of Public Service with complaints that the turbines have kept him and his guests awake at night.  He’s currently asking Green Mountain Power (GMP) for detailed data about wind speed and other weather conditions, which he wants to pass on to his own, independent noise expert.

“They’re kind of waffling on that,” he said of GMP in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“We’re talking to Kevin,” GMP spokesman Dorothy Schnure said Tuesday.  “We’re going to continue to talk with Kevin.”

But Ms. Schnure didn’t say GMP would provide the data he’s seeking.  Instead, she emphasized that the utility stands ready to test any home near the project, to see how much its structure reduces outside noise.  Then the utility would put an outside meter near the house, to provide an approximation of turbine noise inside the home.

So far, she said, “no one has taken us up on the offer.”

GMP announced last week that in a test period from May 22 to June 5 its project did not exceed the PSB noise limits.

However, in two earlier test periods noise exceeded the limits for a total of just over four hours, the release said.

The PSB has scheduled a hearing for August 8 to decide what sanctions should be imposed on GMP for the violations.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks pages.  For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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News analysis — Power siting commission issues report

copyright the chronicle 05-08-13

by Chris Braithwaite

Type Writer by Anna Baker-pages

Opponents of big wind who have knocked heads with devel

opers in front of the state Public Service Board (PSB), and lost, will find no magic bullet in the final report of the Governor’s Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission, which was released Tuesday.
But they may find a few encouraging words.
Developers of big wind projects will be relieved, if hardly surprised, that the commission would leave the permitting process in the hands of the PSB.  It’s a process they’re familiar with, and appear to have mastered.
Developers may, however, feel that in its effort to fix a process that “lacks sufficient clarity, transparency and predictability,” the commission has made recommendations that would make their job more difficult.
One lobbying group, Renewable Energy Vermont, went public within an hour of the report’s release with a statement of “significant concern with some of the recommendations, which threaten to take Vermont’s energy progress backwards.”
Although the commission would probably deny it, its 103-page report is really about industrial scale wind projects.  Governor Peter Shumlin didn’t mention renewable energy — let alone wind energy — when he created the small commission with the very long name last October.
He asked it for “guidance and recommendations on best practices for the siting approval of electric generation projects larger than the net metering threshold, and for public participation and representation in the siting process.”
But it was created in the aftermath of some very bitter battles over two big wind projects in the Northeast Kingdom.  The Governor, an enthusiastic advocate of big wind, was taking some heat, and the Legislature was about to take up a bill that would impose a moratorium on such projects.
If the commission’s political purpose was to deflect any move against big wind, it seems to have succeeded.  As Paul Lefebvre reports elsewhere in this week’s paper, the wind moratorium bill is limping into a committee of conference as a study, which will give due consideration to the recommendations of the Governor’s Energy Siting Policy Commission.
The commission recommends that communities have a bigger say in the power siting process — but there’s a catch.
The communities involved are large, the collections of towns that make up each of the state’s 11 regional planning commissions (RPCs).  In this area, that would be the Northeastern Vermont Development Association.
The commission would set the 11 RPCs to work on “energy guidelines, policies, and land use suitability maps as part of their regional plans.”
And it would have the state give each RPC $40,000 to accomplish the task.
Properly drafted, the commission says, such plans should be “dispositive” before the PSB.  That would seem to mean that if a developer proposed a project that didn’t fit the regional plan, the PSB’s answer would be a firm “No.”
That recommendation was singled out by Renewable Energy Vermont.  Regional planning commissions, it said, “neither have the staffing resources nor the expertise to be energy siting experts.  They should not be put in that role.”
But here’s the catch:  The regional plans — individually and collectively — would have to pass muster with another state entity, the Public Service Department (PSD).
Here’s the language:  “Once updated, the elements of each regional plan affecting energy will need to be reviewed by the PSD, concurrently with other updated regional plans to determine both individual plan consistency and — in the aggregate — overall statewide consistency with the legislated energy goals and the CEP (Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan).”
The commission is careful to say that “for a region to simply opt out or construct a blanket prohibition against any particular technology does not constitute adequate planning….”
Only after satisfying the PSD would regional plans be “dispositive” before the PSB.
And the state’s renewable energy goals are extremely high.  Among them, 25 percent of all energy from in-state renewables by 2025, and 75 percent of all electricity sales from renewables by 2032.
The power this proposal would put in the hands of the Public Service Department led one commission member to issue a two-page dissent.
It comes from Louise McCarren, who was the first woman to head the PSB, under Governors Snelling and Kunin, and who also served as commissioner of the PSD.
She writes:  “A fair interpretation of the proposal is the that the PSD will have the authority, if it determines that in aggregate there has been insufficient land designated for the siting of electric generation, to specify regional and municipal land use obligations and locations for generation siting….
“This centralization of decision making regarding electric generation site selection reduces the role of municipalities, may relieve developers from working closely with municipalities, and enshrines the non-statutory CEP as the controlling land use document.”
If anyone should understand the levers of power in utility regulation it would be Ms. McCarren.  And her dissent suggests that, while appearing to put much more power in the hands of regional planning commissions, the proposal in fact would pass that power up to the commissioner of public service, who is an appointee of the Governor and serves at his or her pleasure.
Ms. McCarren, indeed, puts into simple English something critics of big wind have been struggling to articulate for years.  If renewable energy siting decisions are driven by the Legislature’s explicit renewable electric energy goals and by the administratively generated Comprehensive Energy Plan, these become the state’s “controlling land use document.”
That’s what happened to Lowell Mountain, and to Sheffield Heights.
And that realization is what recently led Senator John Rodgers to say that these very specific goals should be scrapped, and Vermont should start to plan its war on global warming all over again.
The commission, in fact, cites an alternative goal early in its report, straight out of Vermont statutes:  “by 2028: 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; 75 percent by 2050.”
That goal targets the real culprit, greenhouse gases, rather than a single source that is actually remarkably clean in Vermont, electric power.  And that would make possible a much more cost effective attack on the problem that could include the big greenhouse gas sources in Vermont, heating and transportation.
That’s what one of the Lowell Mountain project’s most articulate critics, Ron Holland, tried to tell the PSB in 2011.  The board could only reply that, given the Legislature’s specific commitment to in-state renewable electric power, wind was the most efficient alternative.  Thus the towers on Lowell Mountain would be in the public interest.
The commission made passing reference to Dr. Holland’s perspective on Tuesday.  In a section called “cross-cutting recommendations” its report calls for “consideration of economic efficiency and least environmental damage with particular attention to climate change.”
But that brief, rather obscure sentence, buried in a very long report, is unlikely to save a single ridgeline.
The full report is available at http://sitingcommission.vermont.gov/publications.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks pages.  For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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News analysis: The high cost of clean power

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by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle 4-17-2013

BARTON — Solar energy may come to town soon at the Barton Solar Farm at 1603 Glover Road.  A fairly large project at 1.8 megawatts (MW), it would produce the amount of power consumed, on average, by more than 300 Vermont homes.

The project has no local permits yet, the developer said last week, and still faces the detailed scrutiny of the state Public Service Board under Section 248.  What it does have is acceptance as a SPEED program, a key ingredient in the state’s effort to make a major shift to renewable electric energy.

“We’ve come out of the gate,” said developer Robert Grant of Essex County, Massachusetts.  “Now we have to start running the gauntlet.”

Meanwhile the voters in Newport Center approved at Town Meeting a selectmen’s proposal for a $200,000 “Community Energy Solar Garden.”

Steve Mason, chairman of the Lowell School Board, is looking into working with a Westminster, Vermont, company called Soveren to install a solar system that would provide power to Lowell’s town and school buildings.  Under a deal with Brattleboro Schools that caught Mr. Mason’s eye, the schools will pay none of the capital cost, and save 10 percent on its energy bills.

And small solar installations are popping up at homes in the area at what looks like a steadily increasing pace.

The trend to solar energy is not being driven by the fact that, with no fuel required, it’s cheap energy.  It’s nothing of the kind.

But solar energy is clean energy, and in its haste to clean up Vermont’s electric energy supply, the state has compelled its utilities to buy solar energy at prices that make installations financially attractive.

Those premiums get passed on, through the utilities’ rate structure, to customers who don’t have solar panels on their roof or a wind turbine in their yard.

That’s a concern to some observers, who fear that the state’s strong embrace of renewable energy is based on more emotion than reason; that policies were adopted without due consideration of what they may ultimately cost.

There are, indeed, two programs in Vermont, SPEED and net metering, that pursue the goal of more renewable electric energy in different ways, and with no apparent coordination.

It also puzzles some energy critics that this battle to reduce the state’s carbon footprint, thus contributing to the effort against global warming, is focused on an energy sector that is already remarkably clean.  Vermonters use relatively little electricity.  Vermont residences, on average, consume 573 KWh of power a month, compared to a national average of 940 KWh.

In its “Vermont Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory,” the state Agency of Natural Resources said that, in 2008, electricity accounted for 4 percent of the 8.37 metric tons of carbon dioxide the state releases into the atmosphere.  The bulk of carbon dioxide came from heating and transportation.

The end of contracts with the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant may have altered that picture since 2008, but utilities have turned to other nuclear plants to make up at least some of the difference.

One concerned observer is Willem Post, a frequent source of widely disseminated e-mails on the Vermont energy picture.  In a recent interview, Mr. Post said he is a mechanical engineer with 40 years’ experience in the utility business.

Mr. Post is concerned about a program called SPEED, which stands for Sustainably Priced Energy Development.  It supports moderate to very large renewable projects by offering premium prices for their power.

Any sort of renewable energy gets a premium price compared with the current wholesale price on the New England grid of about 5 cents a kilowatt hour (KWh).  But solar power sits at the top of the heap at five times that rate, 27.5 cents per KWh.  Other prices, freshly recalibrated by the PSB for SPEED’s Standard Offer program, range down to a “levelized” price (which starts lower and climbs higher over 20 years) of 25.3 cents for wind projects over 100 KW, 11.8 cents for larger wind projects, 14.1 cents for farm methane, 12.5 cents for biomass, 12.3 cents for hydro, and 9 cents for landfill methane.

SPEED projects that exceed the 2.2 MW limit of the standard offer program negotiate rates with the utilities, like the 40 MW Sheffield wind project, or are owned by the utilities themselves, like Green Mountain Power’s 63 MW Lowell project.  (One megawatt is 1,000 kilowatts.)

The 2017 SPEED goal, according to its Internet site, “is to have 20 percent of total statewide electric retail sales during the year commencing January 1, 2017, generated by SPEED resources that constitute new renewable energy.”

Vermont consumes about 5.5 million MWh of power a year, so the SPEED goal is about 1.1 million MWh.

According to a recent status report, SPEED projects are already generating an estimated 570,843 MWh, a little over half its target.

That total comes overwhelmingly from big projects outside the Standard Offer Program.  Led by Lowell Mountain, nine big projects are expected to make more than half a million MWh a year, while about 30 Standard Offer projects make about 54,000 MW.

Another 213,162 MWh are expected from SPEED projects “in active development,” about evenly split between four large projects and various standard offer projects.

That would bring total SPEED production to 784,000 MWh, 316,000 MWh short of its goal.

Existing Standard Offer projects lean heavily to farm methane (14) and solar (12).  But on a list of pending projects that will take advantage of high Standard Offer Prices 18 are solar, five farm methane, and three hydro.

The clear preference for solar power worries Mr. Post, the engineer, because of its high, 27.5-cent cost to utilities.

He calculates that the Standard Offer projects already online cost utilities — and their customers — $3.4-million above the average New England grid power price in 2012.

If enough solar Standard Offer project were permitted to meet the SPEED goal, he calculates, the excess cost would rise beyond $50-million in 2017.  And that doesn’t count the cost of the big projects like Lowell, he notes.

In SPEED, he sees a program that was not rationally designed, and is running on autopilot.

He uses the metaphor of a frog in a frying pan of water, with the stove on.  The effect may be gradual, he said, “but it will eventually ruin the Vermont economy.  We will end up with rates that are significantly higher than other states, put ourselves at a further disadvantage.”

But the man who bears the title of Vermont SPEED Facilitator, John Spencer, said Monday that, with their relatively small, 2.2 MW maximum size, Standard Offer projects can’t close the gap between SPEED’s target and its current and scheduled production.  That would mean that the expensive solar projects Mr. Post worries about can’t be hurried forward at the rate he fears.

Mr. Spencer is executive director of a non-profit called VEPP, Inc., that serves as a sort of broker between SPEED producers and the utilities.

Under state law, he said, “I can only take Standard Offer programs at the rate of five MW a year.”

When it comes up against a capacity limit, solar energy is hampered by its low capacity factor of 15 percent.

Five MW of solar power would yield about 6,570 MWh a year.

To fill that 316,000 MWh gap by January 1, 2017, SPEED needs to add about 105,000 MWh a year.

So where will the renewable power come from?

Probably from out of state, Mr. Spencer said.

That is apparently a loophole in the program that has been devised to close the gap.  In 2011, when the Lowell Wind project was being debated before the Public Service Board, the SPEED program was key to its economic justification, and SPEED projects were defined then as in-state renewable generation.

But, somewhat to Mr. Spencer’s dismay, “in-state” has been dropped from the definition.  Energy from new renewable projects in other states can be counted toward the SPEED goal, Mr. Spencer said, as long as they carry their renewable energy credits with them when they cross the state line.  Vermont utilities don’t need those credits, so can sell them to utilities in other states.

Robert Dostis, head of external affairs and customer relations at Green Mountain Power, confirmed Tuesday that his utility is buying SPEED power from Granite Reliable Wind, a New Hampshire project.

That will help GMP meet its 20 percent target, Mr. Dostis said.  “It won’t be easy, but we’re working on it.”

 

Net metering

 

Net metering is a program designed for smaller renewable projects that are linked directly into a utility’s lines through a meter that spins backwards when the customer doesn’t need all the power he or she is producing.

For wind, methane or hydro systems, net metering offers the local utility’s retail rate for power from small renewable projects up to 500 kilowatts (KW) — compared with the 2,200 KW limit on SPEED Standard Offer projects.  But people who install solar panels get a premium big enough to assure them a rate of 20 cents per KWh, a bit above the state’s average residential rate of 17.7 cents.

Not surprisingly, solar installations account for 88 percent of net metered projects, and are driving a growth rate in the program that the state’s Public Service Department (PSD) recently described as “exponential.”

Net metering goes back to 1998 in Vermont, though limits on the size of both individual projects and their total statewide capacity have been increased several times.

In a recent report on the program to the Legislature, the PSD noted that the statewide limit on net metering was raised from 1 percent to 2 percent of Vermont’s peak load of about 1,000 MW in 2002, and that was doubled again to 4 percent in 2011.

In terms of capacity, the PSD said, net metering has climbed past 20 MW statewide, and so is approximately halfway to its current 40 MW limit.

However because it is so heavily weighted to solar power with its low 15 percent capacity factor, net metering accounts for considerably less than 1 percent of the state’s power consumption.

Net metering is growing fast in other parts of the state.  A state list of projects “deemed approved” from the first of this year through mid-March listed 136 statewide, but only one in Orleans County.

For people who have the means to do it themselves, net metering can be attractive.  Mr. Spencer, the SPEED facilitator, installed one at his home for $15,000.  Federal tax credits and state rebates reduced his cost to $10,500, he said, and he hopes the system will eliminate his electric bill of about $1,200 a year.  He calculates a return on investment of about 12 percent, a rate, he notes that is “pretty hard to get in other places.”

For people who want to avoid the up-front cost or the complexity of installing their own system, companies like AllEarth Renewables and its competitors stand ready to install one at no cost.  The homeowner gets a guarantee that his or her electric rates won’t rise, and the installer gets whatever tax credits, rapid depreciation and state rebates are available.

AllEarth has more recently teamed up with Green Lantern Capital to offer such deals to municipalities and non-profits like schools and hospitals that pay no income taxes.  In these deals, the tax advantages go to Green Lantern’s investors, and the municipality is offered a modest saving on its electricity and a chance to buy the system at less than half its cost after seven years.

With such a deal on the table, said AllEarth spokesman Andrew Savage, “there is no sane reason an entity that doesn’t pay taxes would bond for the full cost of a project.”

Mr. Post, the energy policy critic, objects to the idea that the many projects are being financed by millionaires who, while their consumers harvest the power of the sun, are harvesting the substantial tax benefits attached to renewable projects, along with the high rates.

Meanwhile, he said in one e-mail, ordinary Vermonters are saddled with higher power rates.

The DPS study was undertaken to answer just that question from a legislator:  “…whether and to what extent customers using net metering systems… are subsidized by other retail electric customers who do not….”

The study found that they were not.  But that was only after a cash value was factored in to reflect the fact that renewable energy doesn’t generate harmful greenhouse gasses.

Without that calculation, the study showed that net metering costs exceeded its benefits by 0.6 cents a KWh for fixed solar installations, 1.5 cents per KWh for solar systems that track the sun, and 9.1 cents for a 100KW wind generator.

Rian Fried has made a close study of renewable energy for his company, Clean Yield Asset Management, which evaluates investment opportunities for its clients in terms of both financial return and social value.

The company decided some time ago not to recommend any large wind projects, but has invested in solar companies.  Mr. Fried recently installed a net metered system at his home in Stannard.

But he’s not sure anyone at the state policy level has a handle on the long-term effects of our pursuit of clean energy.

“I think you have a political situation in this state now, where the Green Mountain Power people, Shumlin’s people, Paul Burns (the head of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group) and a lot of Progressives are talking about the public good and completely whitewashing the numbers part of it,” he said in an interview.  “There’s going to come a time again when we’re going to talk about rates.”

At Green Mountain Power Mr. Dostis said his utility looks carefully at its mix of power sources to make sure its rates remain competitive with other New England utilities.

“We have a voice in the legislative process,” said Mr. Dostis, himself a former state representative.  “In the end the ratepayers will absorb any cost.  We are very mindful of that, and we make sure the Legislature is very mindful of that.”

Mr. Dostis sees big changes ahead in his industry “as more and more people put on solar projects that meet 100 percent of their power needs.  Their bill is zero.  Other customers are paying the cost of maintaining the overall grid.  It’s an issue the Legislature will have to deal with.”

At the Legislature, Senator John Rodgers of Glover has taken the position that Vermont’s renewable electric energy goals should simply be scrapped.

“My concern is that the renewable goals are driving the Public Service Board’s decisions when they’re siting these projects.  I don’t think that’s how siting should be driven.

“Ridgeline industrial wind is absolutely the worst of all the possible tools at our disposal,” the senator said.  Instead he’d like to see more support for “small, local stuff” like farm methane and power dams that have fallen out of service.

Canadian hydro power is another option that should be expanded, he said.  “I don’t see any problem with using very reasonably priced power produced north of the border with renewable resources.”

He challenges the idea that Vermont should not only use more renewable electric power, but also generate it.  “Most of the appeal of Vermont is that we have resisted destroying our environment for the sake of commercial enterprise,” he said.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

 

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Senate passes weakened wind power bill

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Wind towers at Lowell Mountain, as seen from Irish Hill Road.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Wind towers at Lowell Mountain, as seen from Irish Hill Road. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle  3-27-13

by Paul Lefebvre

MONTPELIER — A legislative push to give towns and regional planning commissions more say in the siting of industrial wind towers appears to be dead, following a preliminary vote here Tuesday in the Senate.

The vote came after a marathon, contentious and at times personal debate that started at the fall of the morning gavel and lasted past the noon hour.  The result is expected to hold when the Senate takes up the bill for the third and final time later this week.

Little remains of a bill that started out as a call for a three-year moratorium on wind and morphed into legislation to reform the permitting process by adding Act 250 criteria and by putting wind development on hold for roughly eight months of study.

What’s left in the measure passed by the Senate Tuesday is a $75,000 appropriation for the creation of a Joint Energy Committee that will evaluate recommendations due out next month from the Governor’s siting commission.

Presumably, the role of towns and the regional commissions in the siting process will be revisited when the committee meets.

The vote was seen as a defeat by the two senators representing Essex and Orleans counties, whose ridgelines are prized by wind developers.

“They stripped the meat out of it,” said Senator John Rodgers, a member of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources that created the bill.

“They took the soup and left the broth,” said Senator Bobby Starr, who during the debate defended the bill as a “commonsense, down-to-earth proposal.

“All it’s asking for is for people to be heard,” he said.

After the debate was over and the vote was in, the region’s senior senator put his best spin on the results by saying a half a loaf was better than none.

A straight up and down vote on the bill was avoided when Senator David Zuckerman prevailed with an amendment that stripped out its key provisions.  It took the unusual route of being voted on twice.  Defeated the first time when Lieutenant Governor Phil Scot broke a tie by voting against it, the amendment was rekindled when Bennington Senator Dick Sears asked if he could change his vote.  His request led to a second vote by the full Senate.

During the debate, Senator Sears had spoken out against the bill and the intent to add Act 250 criteria to the siting process.  That would be an intrusion into the present permitting process, he said.  It would have the effect of “opening up a can of worms that doesn’t need to be open.”

And with his support the Zuckerman amendment passed by two votes, 16 to 14.

In a brief interview outside the Senate Chamber, Senator Zuckerman said he offered the amendment in the belief the bill was sending a “false hope message” to towns.  He said the veto power the bill gave them and the regional commissions could be taken away after eight months had passed and the legislation had sunset.

On the floor he said the bill was duplicating the work of the Governor’s siting commission, and raised the specter of global warming.

“We have a climate crisis on our hands,” he warned.

Stripped of what many believed to be its essential components, the amended bill passed easily.  If the outcome disappointed Senator Joe Benning, the legislator who a year ago spearheaded the call for a three-year moratorium, he didn’t show it during a brief interview after the vote.

He said that with a stronger vote to back it up, the bill would stand a better chance of getting a fair hearing before the House.

“It’s keeping the discussion alive and that is the most important thing of what this last month has been about,” he said.

If words could draw blood, the Senate floor might have become slippery.  Senator Dick McCormack could have been speaking about the debate when he called the issues surrounding the bill “a clash of non-negotiables.”

At different points along the way, the debate pitted one core value against another:  the public good versus local control; global warming versus protecting the environment; rural Vermont versus urban; and the urgency to develop renewable energy versus planning and evaluation.

Senators from the Northeast Kingdom led the way in charging that the most rural corner of the state was being picked on.

Early in the debate Senator Rodgers said Chittenden County didn’t want the Northeast Kingdom to stop the development of renewable energy.  With two wind farms already in place and a landfill taking a large share of the state’s waste, he argued it was time for some other region to step up to the plate.

“A nice landfill in Burlington could conserve diesel fuel and cut down on carbon emissions,” he said at one point.

The freshman Glover senator applauded the bill for giving small towns a voice and financial aid so they might be able “to compete with the deep pockets of developers.”

Senator Starr continued along that line when he characterized big wind as a runaway development that had pushed its way through his district like a bulldozer.

His constituents were complaining, he said, that they “are not being given a chance to be heard.”

Senator Diane Snelling of Chittenden County introduced the bill as a planning mechanism.  She said she “took to heart the concerns over global warming,” and defended the bill as being “very pro renewable energy.”  All the bill was asking for, she said, was a better way to site renewables.

One of the uncertainties arising from the debate was how much weight neighboring towns would have in the permitting process.  Senator Snelling said there was nothing in the bill that would allow a neighboring town to kill a project.

But others suspected the bill would give towns a veto power.  Senator McCormack was among the senators who argued that local control should not override the public good.

“It’s a question of state sovereignty,” he said, pointing out that local control is a power granted to towns by the state.

While Senator Snelling argued that the bill was “a workable proposal to get the best siting for energy,” others argued there was no need for it.

Senator Jeanette White of Windham argued that the bill was redundant and unnecessary.  She noted there were no projects waiting in the wings, and said she was uncomfortable with the bill because she believed it discriminated against wind.

Senator Benning became an advocate for changing the permitting process after he climbed Lowell Mountain and viewed how construction had transformed the mountaintop in preparation for the placement of 21 turbines.  When he came off the mountain, he decided, “We had a problem that wasn’t being addressed by our government.”

As part of his presentation Tuesday, he passed out a parcel of photographs that documented the destruction on Lowell Mountain.  And proceeded to argue that wind developers had gone to the Northeast Kingdom because of its rural isolation and lack of population.

He compared Newark’s town plan with a set of ordinances drawn up by the city of Burlington and pointed out their striking similarities.  Each, he said, wanted to preserve their landscape, natural beauty, and views.

Burlington and the surrounding communities within a ten-mile radius account for one-third of the state’s population.  But Newark, he said, had a population of 581.

Small towns like Newark, he implied, need protection because wind developers go where they won’t get a push back.  Or where resistance is least and likely less affordable.

Senator Mark MacDonald of Orange County said the Kingdom was like the leopard that wanted to change its spots.  He said among supporters of the bill were people from the Northeast Kingdom who had brought “cell towers to mountaintops, and Act 250 be damned.”

No great harm would come, he promised, if the bill were defeated.

Each side in the debate claimed to champion action to slow global warming.  Senator Richard Westman of Lamoille called it “the most important issue facing us.”

He supported the bill because he said it was making lawmakers struggle with the consequences of what has already been done.  And although he was not real happy with the bill, he called the debate surrounding it vital.

For Senator McCormack, the choice hinged on global warming.  The planet was in danger, he said, and push had come to shove.

“The very idea I would vote against a bill to regulate a troubling development — something I never thought I would do,” he said.

“I’m going to vote against this bill and break my heart.”

A final vote by the Senate could come as early as Thursday morning.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

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