Stormwater and habitat impacts of big wind projects can be huge

POSTED ON SEP 14 2011 BY TRISTAN ROBERTS

Although the projects being built in Vermont have the required permits, it is hard to imagine that development of wilderness at this scale will not have a significant effect on stormwater and bear habitat.

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.

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.

 

Tristan Roberts is Editorial Director at BuildingGreen, Inc., in Brattleboro, Vermont, which publishes information on green building solutions.

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