SHEFFIELD — In a large tent struck at the base of a 425-foot wind tower Wednesday, October 26, First Wind celebrated the completion of its 16-turbine project here.
Although speakers acknowledged opposition to the project — opposition that brought about 20 protesters and their signs to the site entrance — developers used the occasion to thank the people who supported their efforts.
Josh Bagnato, who is First Wind’s environmental manager, boasted that the project was built despite record snows and record rains. The night before the celebration the turbines had been producing at full capacity, Mr. Bagnato said, although they slowed visibly as the ceremony got underway and were becalmed by its conclusion.
Mr. Bagnato said First Wind had overcome some “small pockets of resistance,” and told the crowd of approximately 150 people that the company’s persistence was worth it. It had resulted in “a project we should be proud of,” he said.
“The town of Sheffield should be commended for enabling this change to take place when other towns resisted,” Mr. Bagnato said.
He said First Wind began plans for the project in Sheffield eight years ago. The site appealed to the developers because of its strong northwest winds, easy access to power lines and because it had a network of existing logging roads.
Mr. Bagnato said that First Wind had no wind turbines in operation when it first looked at Sheffield, but it now has ten projects generating power in five states.
The Sheffield project is composed of 16 2.5-megawatt Clipper turbines, each 425 feet tall at the tip of the blade. Mr. Bagnato said that, with favorable winds, the project can power up to 42,000 homes.
He said that three Vermont utilities, Vermont Electric Cooperative, Washington Electric Cooperative, and Burlington Electric have signed contracts for all the power generated by the Sheffield turbines.
It would take 40,000 tons of coal per year to equal the power output of the Sheffield towers, Mr. Bagnato said. The company will pay $10-million to Sheffield in lieu of property taxes for the 20 years the plant is expected to stay in operation, he said.
Mr. Bagnato introduced Paul Gaynor, head of First Wind, who immediately turned the microphone over to Governor Peter Shumlin.
Mr. Shumlin used the extreme weather conditions the state has seen in the first ten months of his administration as an argument in favor of building renewable power projects as quickly a possible.
The Sheffield turbines are “an example of how to do it right,” the Governor said. Mr. Shumlin said his administration wants to see the state get 90 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2050 for a “bright oil-free future.”
He talked about how climate change and acid rain have affected his farm in Putney. Where there was once a thriving sugarbush, there is now a tangle of buckthorn, Mr. Shumlin said.
A pond that teemed with life in his youth now supports no living creatures, the Governor said. And he talked about taking a buck four years ago on the next-to-last day of hunting season while clad in shorts and running shoes.
Mr. Shumlin set out a vision of projects like the Sheffield one producing “clean, green renewable power.” With the new plants the state “will be able to retire aging leaking nuclear plants, and provide a bright jobs future for all of us.”
Mr. Gaynor returned to the podium saying that the day was a nostalgic one for him as he recalled the seven years from conception to completion of the project. He said his company had invested about $100-million to build the 16 turbines.
The project had minimal impact on the wetlands on Sheffield Mountain and that as little land as possible was cleared to set up the towers, Mr. Gaynor said. He said that workers were amazed at how little space they were given to do their work.
The project was also designed to avoid harming bear and moose habitats, Mr. Gaynor said. During periods of bat migration the company has agreed to cut back on power production, he said.
Mr. Gaynor told the crowd that Tony Klein of East Montpelier, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, gave him one piece of advice when they started work in Sheffield: “Don’t screw it up.”
“I think I used another word,” Mr. Klein responded.
Mr. Klein said committee members worked for ten years to create the conditions for projects like the Sheffield turbines. He maintained that Vermont’s permitting process is the strictest in the U.S., if not the world.
“I think you guys are out of your minds,” for going through the regulatory process, Mr. Klein said.
Pointing to the National Guard cap he wears to shield his bald head, Mr. Klein said it also serves to honor Vermont men and women who serve their state and country. He said he hopes projects like the one in Sheffield will mean that troops will no longer have to fight for petroleum in far off places.
Avram Patt, who heads the Washington Electric Cooperative, said board members traveled around the country and around the world to inspect other wind projects before allowing the co-op to commit to the First Wind project.
He said that he is pleased that the power from the Sheffield turbines will go to consumer owned power companies.
After the speeches, the crowd gathered at the foot of one of the towers, where a short length of ribbon was fastened across the railings of a stairway.
With a snip of the ribbon, the project was open for business, awaiting only the return of the northwest breeze.
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