Travis Belisle faces what has become predictable opposition as he plans to build as many as seven wind turbines atop a ridge near his Swanton home: Critics say the project will harm wetlands, disturb wildlife and bother neighbors with noise.
But his Swanton Wind project is encountering unexpected headwinds that its predecessors haven't. Some of the state's largest utilities aren't interested in buying more wind power — from his turbines or any others.
"We don't see how this project fits in," said Mary Powell, chief executive officer of the state's largest electric company, Green Mountain Power. "We are in really good shape for our customers with wind."
Ditto Vermont Electric Cooperative, the state's second-largest utility. According to director of government affairs Andrea Cohen, VEC has no plans to buy new wind-generated energy. Nor does the Burlington Electric Department, which last year reached its goal of obtaining 100 percent of its power from renewable resources.
"We're in a similar position to what GMP is," echoed Ken Nolan, BED's manager of power resources. "In general, we don't need any more supply, [from] wind or other sources, for the next five years," he said.
This dismissal is surprising, as it comes just months after legislators etched ambitious new renewable-energy goals into state law. What does it mean for the fledgling Swanton project and for the future of wind power in Vermont?
Most of the players in Vermont's energy field say it doesn't necessarily spell the end for either. The state's largest utilities locked into getting power from three large wind projects that went online during the last four years, so their interest, for now, has waned. They also seem to be more wary of getting involved in any projects that face heavy hometown opposition.
Short-term, that could put developers such as Belisle in a bind. They are likely to have a harder time persuading the quasi-judicial Vermont Public Service Board that a project is in the public interest — and therefore should be permitted to operate — without proof that they can sell the power to Vermonters.
Long-term, it's still in the mix, according to Chris Recchia, commissioner of the state Department of Public Service, which represents ratepayers. He argued that wind power is still viable in Vermont, particularly as turbine technology advances.
"I think it's more about the timing. GMP is a little long on power," he said. "Wind is still an important component of our energy future, but it's never been a situation where our countryside will be dotted with turbines."
Others say that wind power will be an essential ingredient as the state works toward meeting the new renewable-energy targets. A state law passed this year requires that 75 percent of Vermont's power come from renewable sources by 2032 and sets a goal of 90 percent renewables by 2050.
"We're certainly going to need wind," said Gabrielle Stebbins, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, which represents renewable energy developers and utilities. "If we're serious about reaching 90 by 2050, you're going to see more and more supply."
In Swanton, Belisle; his wife, Ashley; and his father, Gerald, launched the Swanton Wind project because, Belisle said, they believe that powering Vermont with locally generated renewable energy is the right thing to do.
They aren't giving up, said Leslie Cadwell, a lawyer who is representing the project. "There is a long way to go in the process," she said.
The Belisles have yet to formally apply for permission from the state to build the turbines, but the Swanton Wind project has already drawn the ire of neighbors and town officials fearful of noise and environmental degradation. The Swanton Selectboard last month sent a unanimous seven-page letter to the Public Service Board opposing the project.
Before applying for a certificate of public good from the board, the project's developers asked Green Mountain Power for a traditional agreement to buy the power their turbines would generate at a negotiated price. They took another route, too: They requested that the state allow them to sell their power under a rarely invoked federal law intended to help independent producers.
Green-energy developers in Vermont are showing renewed interest in the federal Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act, or PURPA. The 1978 law requires utilities to purchase power from qualifying developers at set, long-term prices that are supposed to equal what utilities would pay for power elsewhere. The law was designed to help independent power producers compete with monopoly utilities.
GMP opposed Belisle's PURPA proposal and said no to a negotiated purchase contract.
Burlington Electric Department and Washington Electric Cooperative joined GMP in asking the Public Service Board to reject the PURPA request, which, they argue, would cost them more than other power sources on the market. The guaranteed prices, which were set by the state in February, vary by month and by peak and nonpeak power needs. Powell said they tend to be at least 10 percent higher than other contracts.
The board has not made a decision on whether PURPA applies.
Utilities' opposition to the contracts is long-standing and unfair, Cadwell said. "GMP and other monopolies consistently fight PURPA because its purpose is to encourage development and ownership of renewable-energy facilities by nonutility companies, thereby reducing utility rate base and shareholder profits," she said.
Swanton Wind told the Public Service Board that granting a PURPA deal will help the state meet its renewable-energy goals and that having a future power contract is necessary — especially for independent developers — to secure financing for their projects.
How will the utilities' no-new-wind policy impact companies already building turbines in Vermont? Iberdrola Renewables, a Spanish company that operates in 20 U.S. states, has two proposed projects in Vermont — the long-planned Deerfield project in Readsboro and Searsburg, and another in Grafton that's in the early stages of development. There are lots of unknowns with every site, said Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copelman. Generally, he said, "We look at Vermont broadly as a market that is supportive of renewable energy."
Iberdrola has no deal for power from the Grafton project, but Copelman said it's too early to panic: "We don't even know if we have a project."
Iberdrola did land a deal with Green Mountain Power to sell energy from the Deerfield project, on which it hopes to break ground next year, but that's the last wind contract the utility is pursuing, and GMP has an option to buy those turbines 10 years after they start operating.
When it comes to buying more wind power, Powell said, "I wouldn't say, 'No, never.'" But she added that Green Mountain Power is focused on smaller-scale renewables, such as solar and methane digesters that are located as close to the power demand as possible. The utility, which draws 9 percent of its energy from wind, must maintain a diverse portfolio to keep costs down, Powell said. Owning power facilities outright is a cost-saver in the long run, she said.
Green Mountain Power owns two of its wind-power sources for wind: Kingdom Community Wind in Lowell, which went online in 2011, and Searsburg Wind, which has been operating since 1997. The cost of power from both is relatively low: 4 cents per kilowatt hour from Lowell and 2 cents from Searsburg. Both are cheaper than the 5 cents per kilowatt GMP pays for nuclear power from NextEra Energy Resources in Seabrook, N.H.
The utility also gets wind power from Granite Reliable Wind in New Hampshire for 6.3 cents per kilowatt hour and would pay 4.8 cents under the proposed agreement with Deerfield.
But cost isn't the only concern when deciding whether to get involved in a project, Powell said. Community support is also a factor, she said. Powell called the Swanton Selectboard's unanimous letter of opposition to Belisle's project "significant."
When Green Mountain Power built the 21-turbine Lowell project, neighbors strongly opposed it, but the host town voted in support twice — before and after the turbines were installed.
Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, has fought against many wind projects in Vermont. She suggested whether Green Mountain Power is still reeling from its Lowell experience, which spawned lawsuits and required the utility to buy neighbors' homes.
Not so, Powell said. "It was an amazing project that was brought in on time and on budget," Powell said.
Since then, wind opponents have become more organized and quicker to quash projects, arguing that neighbors feel powerless in a confusing and legalese-laden Public Service Board process.
Last week, Irasburg residents voted 274-9 against a two-turbine Kidder Hill Community Wind project that developer David Blittersdorf proposed there.
Cadwell, who represents that project as well as Swanton Wind, indicated that both projects' developers will continue to counter opposition, which, she argued, has been based on misinformation. "If the Irasburg Selectboard was truly interested in informed discussion, it could have waited until there was a fleshed-out proposal to serve as a starting point for conversation," she said.
Cadwell brought the argument back to the need for clean, locally generated power. "We all know we need electricity: not just to power our homes but increasingly to provide petroleum-free transportation and affordable, efficient home heating for Vermonters," she said.
Blittersdorf did not respond to a request for comment. In a June presentation to the Addison County Democratic Committee, he made the argument that Vermont will be thirsting for renewable energy, including wind, in the coming decades. To meet the goal of 90 percent renewables by 2050, Vermont will need 3,000 megawatts of wind power, he estimated. The state now has just 119 megawatts.
Blittersdorf told the crowd: "It's hard, but we've got to start moving faster."