PSB and GMP create turbulence for Swanton Wind

Saint Albans Messenger – September 29, 2015

Green Mountain Power on Friday supported the Department of Public Service’s position that the Swanton Wind project’s petition for a power purchase agreement be dismissed.

Shrouded in legalese is the unmistakable message that the proposed wind turbine project on Rocky Ridge in Swanton has hit some turbulence. Perhaps enough that the project will not go forward.

The utility’s objections include three key elements; affordability, need, and the proper use of resources.

The applicant, Swanton Wind, had asked that its power be bought under what is known as Power Purchase Agreements, which basically means [under federal law] that if the project were approved the utility would be required to purchase the power at above market rates.

That puts the PSB in the position of not being able to protect Vermont ratepayers, which, under Vermont law, is required. GMP sided with the PSB, which essentially means it makes no sense to approve a project whose costs would be above what is prudent or defensible.

Green Mountain Power has also noted that it doesn’t need the power from the wind project.

But the utility’s rejection of Swanton Wind is not simply part of a regulatory process, something that could be untied if the developer redid the paperwork and resubmitted its application. GMP is also sending another message, much more fundamental. The utility is moving more toward home-based, micro-grid projects than it is large projects like Swanton Wind. And when large projects are part of its objective, they would prefer projects that have the community’s support. The even bigger message is that if the renewable energy industry is to continue its move forward, it will need to do a better job with its siting requirements and with its community relations efforts.

This is a much bigger deal than what may first appear.

What GMP’s CEO Mary Powell is saying is that the state has to smarten up. Tossing up large renewable energy projects – solar or wind – without regard to cost, need or public support is a doomed pursuit. It rewards the developers of the project, but that’s about it.

It may be that the Swanton Wind project can find other entities to buy its power and it’s premature to make a judgment about the project’s future. But the PSB’s motion to dismiss, supported by GMP, casts the project in different and more difficult circumstances. If the wind project’s developers move forward, they will do so without GMP’s support and its articulated opposition. Other buyers would, one would assume, need to deal with the same concerns.

What has been made clear is that the community’s concern has made a difference. It is significant that the Swanton Selectboard came out so strongly in opposition. It’s significant that people have questioned the impact on ratepayers. And it’s significant that those affected have raised the basic question: Are all renewable energy projects good ones simply because they are renewable and fit within the politically correct rhetoric of the times?

We are at the beginning stages of this debate and it’s one that will be contentious. The renewable energy industry has a lot of money at stake and it continues to push for regulations that are less onerous, not more so. Some within the industry see no problem stringing wind turbines from one ridgeline to the next. Some within the solar industry want mega-acre projects and prefer not to be limited by siting requirements. Together, it comes across as a helter-skelter approach to how we want to address our renewable energy needs.

The PSB’s motion that Swanton Wind’s application be dismissed, and GMP’s subsequent letter of agreement, may be the beginning stages of a more meaningful discussion as to how Vermont addresses its renewable power needs.

That, at least, is the hope.

by Emerson Lynn

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