Vermont taking breather from wind power, but more to come

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — A few years back, large-scale wind projects dominated the renewable energy discussion in Vermont as vocal opponents decried the destruction of pristine mountaintops and the details of construction plans grabbed headlines.

But the commotion has died down, and now the conversation is focused on solar power. All of Vermont's new electrical capacity last year came from solar energy, doubling the state's total in that category, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Wind power projects take longer to develop than solar power, and they can face stiff opposition from the public. And experts say the federal tax credits that are keeping the solar industry on track have been uncertain for wind developers for some time.

"Wind is not dead. It's just taking a little hibernation here as federal policy gets the tax credits right," said David Blittersdorf, the president of All Earth Renewables and the developer of the four-turbine Georgia Mountain wind project just north of Burlington.

"If there is a project that is well-sited, it's economically competitive and beneficial, then I think there are still opportunities to move forward," said Darren Springer, the deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, which does energy planning for the state.

Iberdrola Renewables is moving forward with a 15-turbine project on two ridgelines mostly in the Green Mountain National Forest in Searsburg and Readsboro, enough to power about 14,000 homes. While the company doesn't have a date yet when it will begin construction, the major hurdles have been cleared, said Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman.

The company is in the early stages of planning a project in Windham and Grafton, which could be up to 30 turbines, although the final engineering and environmental studies that will determine the exact number have not yet been done, Copleman said.

"The two projects that we have in development speak to our interest in the state," he said. "The fundamentals for developing wind in Vermont are still strong."

Vermont has four industrial-scale wind projects in operation: the 21-turbine, 63-MW Lowell Mountain wind farm and a 10-MW Georgia Mountain project, both launched in late 2012; the 40-MW, 16-turbine project in Sheffield launched in fall 2011; and a smaller 6-MW wind project, in Searsburg, which has been online since 1997.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has committed the state to get 90 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2050. To reach that goal Vermont will need more wind, solar and other sources of electricity, including finding ways to be more efficient, Blittersdorf said.

Blittersdorf said he felt the future for wind would be for more, smaller projects. He says he's working on more projects, but he's not ready to talk about them yet.

"It's going to be all over the place," he said.

Despite the current solar-energy push, Green Mountain Power, Vermont's largest utility, owns 69 MW of wind capacity compared to 2.2 MW of solar. GMP spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure says the utility considers both to be important and cost-effective.

"Right now the attention is on the solar because those are the projects that are actively under development," Schnure said.

Wind has its detractors. Annette Smith, of Danby, the executive director of the nonprofit Vermonters for a Clean Environment and an opponent of industrial wind development, said wind developers are still eager to build in Vermont despite what she said is clear-cut opposition from most of the communities where the projects are proposed.

She says wind projects divide communities, and once built they are hard to live near. Opponents regularly decry what they see as the destruction of mountaintops and a threat to rivers, streams and wildlife.

Despite a lull in wind projects, Smith said she also believes there will be more.

"It's not like nothing is happening, it's just that they are all happily getting their policies in place ... They have all the mountain-sites scoped out," Smith said. "They know where they want to go, they have sliced and diced every bit of terrain in Vermont and know what's close to the power lines."

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