NEK residents demand answers, voice opposition to Lowell Wind Project

by Angela Chagnon

More than a hundred people crowded into the Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC) warehouse in Johnson Tuesday evening to vote on several ballot items and have their questions answered by representatives of the power company.

VEC, in partnership with Green Mountain Power, will upgrade 16.9 miles of transmission lines near Jay Peak at a cost of $12 million, of which GMP has agreed to pay $7 million. This line will be used to carry power from the wind farm proposed for the Lowell Mountain ridge to surrounding towns and villages.

The wind farm will span 3 miles of the Lowell Mountain ridge line and contain 20 to 21 450-foot tall wind turbines, and is expected to serve about 20,000 homes.

“We have a requirement from the state of Vermont that 20% of our power come from in-state renewables by 2017,” said Dave Hallquist, CEO of VEC.

Although Hallquist repeated this statement several times, when a reporter pointed out that it was actually not a requirement, Hallquist admitted, “The legislature has given us a clear message that it wants 20% of our power to come from in-state renewables. That is the will of the people. Although the legislature has stopped short of making it, quote, a mandate, they also said if we don’t do it we’ll get a renewable portfolio standard.”

Other questions on the ballot concerned a purchase power agreement with Hydro Quebec and a change to VEC’s bylaws. Although the line transmission upgrade will be done specifically to transmit power from the wind turbines that have yet to be built, the ballot did not make any mention of the wind project.

But it is the controversial wind project that has become the centerpiece of this debate. Opponents have tried to make the vote on the power lines a referendum on the wind turbines. The project is expected to create 63 kilowatts of power “when the wind is blowing hard”, according to a VEC representative. VEC will receive 12.7% of the wind farm power output, and GMP will get the rest.

In a July 5 letter sent to VEC members, Hallquist wrote, “A vote against the transmission upgrades will not stop GMP’s work on the wind project but would cost VEC members more.”

On Tuesday, Hallquist fielded questions from the rather peeved crowd. Several members asked why the project was being rushed through without proper input from members and residents of the towns that will be affected by the turbines.

A member who did not identify himself said, “Did it ever occur [to you] that maybe Vermont Electric Co-op might get together with the other electrical providers or producers in the state and go down to the state and say ‘look what you’re doing to our state – you’re destroying the environment to save the environment.’ Just use some common sense!”

Hallquist responded that VEC didn’t lobby the legislature because “that’s everybody in this room’s job. That’s the job of the will of the state of Vermont.”

“If they told you to go jump off a bridge, would you do it because that’s what was legislated?” the anonymous member asked incredulously.

“I would not commit suicide for the state of Vermont,” Hallquist replied to laughter from the crowd.

Ben Luce, a professor at Lyndon State College, prefaced his remarks by disclosing that he had spent a decade lobbying for clean energy in other state legislatures and supported large wind. But wind power in Vermont “doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said. “Do you really believe that people in this room will believe that it was up to them to set the state policy on things like SPEED?

“You know fully well, as I do, that utilities and renewable energy developers have spent millions of dollars in utility executive time, in lobbyist time, in lawyering, all the stuff that goes into creating state policy,” he continued. “It’s completely absurd, in my point of view, for you to make that claim.”

Luce then reprimanded VEC for not looking out for its members and allowing bad policies to be created by the government while “standing idly by letting policies pass that lead to the destruction of one of the most precious environmental jewels in Vermont.”

Another member brought up the environmental violations recently committed by GMP.

“The project hasn’t even started yet, and there are two violations already from GMP,” said John Fox of Waterville. “Do we want to get in bed with these people when they’ve already cut the wrong trees and started filling in wetland when the project hasn’t even officially begun yet?”

When the ballots were tallied up near the end of the meeting, the transmission upgrade passed 5,340 to 1,379. The Hydro Quebec agreement passed 5,970 to 700 and the bylaw change passed 5,572 to 991.

The margin of passage was surprising, considering that not one person at the meeting spoke in support of the ballot items.

In a statement given after the meeting adjourned, Lukas Snelling of the wind project opposition group “Energize Vermont” remarked, “The other thing we learned about today is if you spend $55,000 to get out a ‘yes’ vote, versus community members’ donations, it’s very easy to win.”