Utility Wind Energy: Bad News for Bears
Stormwater and habitat impacts of big wind projects can be huge
Author's Note: Please see the comment thread at the bottom of this article for more discussion on the width of the ridgeline road. Since posting this article I learned of other permitting documents indicating a much narrower road than discussed in this article.
One of my favorite pieces of Vermont trivia has been that the tallest man-made structure in the state is the Bennington Battle Monument, at 306 feet tall — and construction of it was completed in 1889.
I'm due for an update, however (and so is the Wikipedia entry on the monument). Since 1997, Vermont has had a major wind development in Searsburg, with turbines "only" 132 feet tall, but this summer First Wind has been installing 16 turbines, each 420 feet tall, on a Sheffield ridgeline in the Northeast Kingdom (read Sheffield resident Martin Holladay's supportive post about these on GreenBuildingAdvisor.com).
By next summer, 21 460-foot wind turbines are likely to be installed on four miles of ridgeline in Lowell as part of Green Mountain Power's Kingdom Community Wind project.
We need nonpolluting energy
I would consider myself open-minded about wind power. I believe we need nonpolluting sources of energy to wean ourselves from fossil fuels and to stave off climate change. On the other hand, I've heard that wind developments can have a surprisingly big impact on the environment.
To understand this issue better, I spoke this morning with Steve Wright. Steve is the former president of Sterling College, and was the Commissioner of Vermont Fish and Wildlife under Governor Kunin. Recently he has been volunteering as a liaison for the Town of Craftsbury in the permitting process for the Lowell wind project. Although the project is located in Lowell, the neighboring towns of Craftsbury and Albany have been very concerned about impacts to their towns from the development, as well as statewide effects.
Turbines require roads — big roads
What impacts? When viewed from afar, many people thing that large wind turbines look picturesque, even inspiring. It would be easy to imagine that those turbines were planted in the ground like trees from some sort of giant helicopter, with no effect on the surrounding area.
Not so. The road you have to build to get the turbine there, and building infrastructure like transmission lines, has a huge effect. "There is a huge difference between planting a turbine in a cornfield next to a residence, versus putting a turbine on a ridgeline where there are no roads and no transmission lines, which is the case with most of Vermont's ridgelines," says Wright.
According to Wright, who quoted permitting documents to give me these figures, the Lowell project will require an access road of between 190 and 215 feet in width along four miles of ridgeline. Then, at each turbine, an additional 190 feet must be cleared in a circle for the crane to be able to turn around it and do its work.
An Interstate highway on a mountain ridgeline
Given the density at which the turbines are being placed, this amounts to 400 feet of road running almost continuously across what is now an untouched ridgeline. Like any highway, this one will require extensive blasting and flattening to provide the required access.
For comparison, one lane of I-91 is 12 feet wide, meaning that 33 lanes would fit into this "access road." That doesn't include additional access roads and clearing performed for transmission lines.
According to Wright, there are basically three permitting bodies that a project like the one in Lowell has to go through: the Public Service Board, the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR), and the federal government, in the form of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Lowell project has cleared the first two hurdles.
Can our stormwater systems handle the runoff?
Having just been through Hurricane Irene, and the massive and destructive flooding that it brought to Vermont, I am acutely aware of the natural flow of water through our mountainous landscapes, and how water can build and lead to flooding, erosion, and sedimentation patterns that would be difficult to imagine in drier times. Much of the reaction after the flooding has focused on lost homes and destroyed highways, but fish and wildlife are adversely affected when streams, pools, and other waterways fill up with silt and when riparian habitat is washed away.
I asked Wright how building four miles of Interstate highway on top of a ridgeline — a rocky environment exposed to plenty of rain, and upstream of hundreds of square miles of streams, pools, culverts, bridges, and roads — could be deemed safe by ANR with respect to flooding risk.
Dueling experts disagree
Wright depicted the permitting process as involving "Two sets of dueling experts who come together and see who has the most people standing, once they have tried to cut each other into pieces." The result? "We felt that we proved that the engineering design was unworkable and then we reinforced that with the opinion of a disinterested third party, but even then the ANR rejected our findings and approved the project."
To be clear, Wright noted that neither he nor the towns that he is working with, Craftsbury and Albany, are opposed to the Lowell project. "We never said that we don't want the development. We have said that you had better take care of our interests and concerns."
For its part, GMP's FAQ section on its website emphasizes on the wind project's website that the project has passed the required environmental impact review:
What environmental impacts will result from the installation of Kingdom Community Wind?
The project's developers, state and federal environmental experts and regulators have closely studied the potential impacts of the project. All necessary environmental permits must be received and complied with, as well as additional conditions placed on KCW as a result of its certificate of public good (CPG) issued by the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB). With those requirements, including mitigation plans for known impacts, the regulators have determined that KCW poses no undue adverse impacts to the environment.
I don't think they answered the question — do you? The question that was asked as about "impacts." The question that was answered was about "undue adverse impacts" as defined narrowly by lawyers.
Black bears need beechnuts
What about the interests of other Vermonters — black bears, among them? "Loss of wildlife habitat" is so abstract — but Wright explained to me exactly what that means.
Right about now, in early fall as black bears are getting ready for hibernation, beech stands at high elevations are an important source for protein. Although they are still in a a milky, unhardened state, beechnuts are forming now in abundant clusters in healthy, high-quality stands. Bears climb the trees, often quite a ways up, gather up clusters of nuts in "brooms" and chew them down.
The developer in Lowell plans to destroy 22 acres of "high quality" American beech growth for the access road up from Route 100. ANR approved a deal in which they preserved about 500 acres of land in a different location, but according to Wright, this land contains much lower-quality beech forest.
Learning everything I've shared with you here has been enough to give me serious pause in considering wind development. Is it hypocritical for environmentalists to oppose wind? We do need clean energy, right? Exploring that issue will require another column, however. In the meantime, send your comments and questions on monuments, ridgelines, bears, beeches, and anything else from today.
Image 2 (below) comes from a Picasa Web photo album; to see more of these photos of the Sheffield wind development under construction, click here.
Tristan Roberts is Editorial Director at BuildingGreen, Inc., in Brattleboro, Vermont, which publishes information on green building solutions.
- Green Mountain Power
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