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On the surface, a location dubbed the Green Mountain State would seem like the ideal location to build a wind farm. However, as Boston-based developer First Wind quickly learned in the construction and development of the 40 MW Sheffield Wind Project – located in Sheffield, Vt. – that perception couldn’t have been further from reality.

The project encountered stiff opposition since nearly its inception. The wind farm was originally envisioned as a 52 MW project spanning the communities of Sutton and Sheffield, but First Wind reduced the project’s footprint after encountering heavy resistance in the town of Sutton.

Although studies show that Vermont residents overwhelmingly support wind power, active opposition groups, such as Ridge Protectors and Energize Vermont, attended early public-outreach meetings and took to social media to spread their anti-wind message.

Despite the opposition, First Wind believed in the project’s positive attributes, such as its proximity to a 115 kV transmission line and its central location off Interstate 91. Additionally, the developer was able to sell the project’s entire output to three Vermont local electric cooperatives – Washington Electric Co-op, Vermont Electric and Burlington Electric Department – via long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs), which help the utilities comply with Vermont’s voluntary 10% by 2013 renewable portfolio standard.

“[Vermont] is not an industrial state,” notes Matt Kearns, First Wind’s vice president of development. “A 40 MW wind farm is a big undertaking here.”

Indeed, the developer endured nearly a decade’s worth of stall tactics and delays before completing the project in October 2011. Given Vermont’s strict adherence to the preservation of its natural character, First Wind took significant measures to ensure the wind farm carefully blended into the state’s landscape. The company started developing the project in the early 2000s, when wind farms were still something of a novelty in New England; as late as 2007, the only utility-scale wind farm operating in New England was First Wind’s Mars Hill wind farm, located in Maine.

 

Permitting nightmare

Well versed in how seriously Vermont responds to issues about aesthetics and development, the opposition shrewdly attempted to use the regulatory process to stop the project. Although the group was unsuccessful in doing so, the appeals added years of delay to the project’s timeline.

“The opposition made claims that did not bear out in fact,” Kearns recalls. “There was a lot of hyperbole and talk but very few actual claims. When we heard about issues that we could respond to, we did.”

In 2007, the Vermont Public Service Board, which oversees energy generation in Vermont, issued the project a certificate of public good (CPG), the primary permit needed to build and operate the project.

However, because the CPG was the first one issued to a wind farm in Vermont, one of the opposition groups, Ridge Protectors, intervened. Nearly one year later, the board’s decision was unanimously upheld by the Vermont Supreme Court.

During the CPG process, First Wind voluntarily agreed to curtail wind turbines during peak periods in order to protect the bat population during migration, which typically occurs during an eight-week period in August and September. During this time, bats are more likely to collide with wind turbines, according to Josh Bagnato, First Wind’s environmental and permit compliance manager.

First Wind worked with the State of Vermont and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), as well as Bat Conservation International, on the mitigation efforts. According to Bagnato, the bat study was conducted as an academic project, wherein a team of students inspected the grounds for bat carcasses. According to Bagnato, the bat study later became a condition of the CPG permit.

Another point of contention was the project’s Construction General Stormwater Permit. “With any project where you disturb more than an acre of land, you have to get a stormwater permit,” Bagnato notes, adding that the permit is usually easy to obtain.

In Vermont, however, water quality had become a big issue over the years, thanks to stormwater runoff’s contamination of Lake Champlain.

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“The opponents made the issuance of a basic permit pretty complicated,” Bagnato explains. “Even though the lake is nowhere near this project, the sensitivity around water quality helped the opposition gain some traction in their appeal.”

After a two-year delay, First Wind obtained its stormwater permit in early 2011.

The project also came under scrutiny from the FWS, which had concerns about the project’s impact on wetland areas near the site location. Fortunately, Vermont has a rigorous and detailed water-quality program, Bagnato explains, adding that the state had recently tested river samples in two locations near the wind farm.

According to Kearns, First Wind was supported by Washington Electric Co-op, which not only purchased a portion of the project’s output, but also helped to secure a grant for the project’s met tower.

“After all of the opposition, [the utility] really helped to shift the momentum in the community,” Kearns explains. “The grant for the met tower was a signal to the community that they believed in the possibility of the project and in our company.”

Of course, the signed PPA didn’t hurt either, Kearns adds, noting that “PPAs are one of the most important determinants of whether a project will be successful.”

In recounting the events at Sheffield, Kearns is a bit hesitant to say if First Wind would return to the area for more development.

“We made a lot of changes to Sheffield,” Kearns recalls. “Vermont is a very challenging place to permit projects. The residents are beginning to sort through the fact versus fiction,” he says, adding that each additional wind turbine will begin to change the public perception for the better.

“If we found the right site and had community support,” Kearns says, “it would make it easier to ride through the storm.” w

Profile: Sheffield Wind Project

Opposition And Permitting Delays Unable To Deter Vermont Project

By Mark Del Franco

It took First Wind nearly a decade to complete the 40 MW Sheffield Wind Project, located in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

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