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Wind farm poised for approval

SEC sets conditions

June 03, 2009
CONCORD — The wind farm proposed for central Cos County has cleared another hurdle.

The seven-member Site Evaluation Committee (SEC) voted unanimously on Wednesday afternoon that constructing and operating the 33-turbine 99-megawatt wind farm would not have unreasonable adverse effects on the natural environment, water and air quality, and public health and safety.

Previously the SEC had voted unanimously that the $275 to $300 million Granite Reliable Power LLC project would be financially viable, could be properly managed, would not unduly affect historic sites or views, and would help meet the state's energy policies and goals for renewable energy.

To give itself ample time to hammer out a detailed set of conditions under the assumption that it will grant a Certificate of Site and Facility, the SEC voted to further extend its deadline by another 34 days by setting its final deadline on Tuesday, June 30. The state legislature had established a streamlined nine-month process for renewable energy projects, and the SEC's original deadline was set on April 6.

"Wednesday's votes were significant, and we are very encouraged that the SEC agreed that we have satisfied all the criteria," said GRP project manager Pip Decker, who maintains an office in the Old Court House in Lancaster.

SEC members spent the bulk of its time on Wednesday asking questions of a two-person panel of wildlife biologists who both helped forge the mitigation package that became an integral part of GRP's proposal.

Steve Weber, Chief of the Wildlife Division of the state Fish and Game Department, and Region I wildlife biologist Will Staats, who were represented by Evan Mulholland of the state Attorney General's office, answered questions posed mainly by SEC member Dr. Don Kent, who heads the state Natural Heritage Bureau, and intervenor Lisa Linowes of Lyman, who heads the Industrial Wind Action Group (IWAG). Dr. Kent said that the biologists' complete and detailed answers and their familiarity with the lands that are designated in the mitigation package satisfied his concerns.

Ms. Linowes said she continues to believe, however, that the package falls "woefully short" of "regaining what would be lost" by constructing a road to the ridgelines of Mt. Kelsey and erecting wind towers there. New Hampshire lacks the experience necessary to deal adequately with such an extensive high-elevation wind farm development.

GRP has agreed to conserve 1,735 acres of high-elevation spruce-fir forest by transferring ownership to the state in perpetuity. The package includes 1,281 acres on Mt. Kelsey as well as 220 acres on Long Mountain and 60 acres on Muise Mountain to the west, both of which abut the 39,000-acre Nash Stream State Forest, about half of which is protected from any timber harvesting.

In their pre-filed testimony at the start of the process, representatives of both Fish and Game and the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) were particularly concerned about the destruction and/or disturbance of habitat used by the American marten, three-toed woodpecker, and Bicknell's thrush as well as that of potential travel routes and habitat used by the Canada lynx.

In addition to designating specific acres for permanent protection, the mitigation package also calls for GRP to give $750,000 to the state to conserve additional acreage in Cos County, with a particular focus on high-elevation habitat.

When asked whether such lands are available, the two wildlife biologists replied that there are high-elevation lands for sale in Cos, pointing out that they had learned in a recent issue of this newspaper that The Balsams hotel and approximately 7,000 forested acres in Dixville are for sale. Thousands of acres under other ownerships are potentially for sale further to the north.

Mr. Weber, who noted that earlier in his career he had lived for five years — from 1990 to 1995 — in Stark within 10 miles of the wind farm site, pointed out that he anticipates that the state Fish and Game Department would work with both private and public partners to leverage the $750,000 with federal and/or state funds to protect additional lands. He said that he would hope that the GRP monies would provide 25 percent of the dollars needed to carry out a large-scale purchase and other partners, 75 percent, potentially bringing the total dollar amount to approximately $3 million. Typically the price of such land ranges in price from $500 to $1,000 an acre, Mr. Weber said.

Under the mitigation package, another $200,000 would go toward post-construction studies that could prove helpful to protecting species on other projects, he explained.

Mr. Weber said that there is no guarantee that the habitat for which mitigation is sought would precisely replicate that which would be lost. "Any time you lose habitat through development it is very difficult to replace that habitat," he said. "The impacts don't go away." He did point out, however, that although the Bicknell's thrush is a very important species with a large component of its worldwide population living in New Hampshire, it is not a "threatened or endangered" species.

Mr. Staats pointed out that not only are all these privately held lands vulnerable to logging but to other development, ranging from trail-and-yurt systems to lease camps to ski developments. "Continued parcelization" is a threat to high-elevation habitat, the wildlife biologist said.

SEC member Mike Harrington, who is a staff engineer with the state Public Utilities Commission, pointed out that saying that the GRP project would not have an "unreasonable impact on the natural environment" did not mean the project would have no effect. "The roads and turbines will have an effect," said Mr. Harrington, noting that renewable energy projects necessarily require the careful weighing and balancing of gains and losses.

SEC members were also satisfied that the wiring anomaly that caused problems in the GE turbines in the Altona wind farm in upstate New York, owned and operated by GRP's parent company Noble Environmental Power of Essex, Conn., would not be a problem in the Vestas 90 turbines in Cos.

The next — and potentially final — deliberative session on the proposed GRP wind farm is set at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, June 10, in the NHPUC hearing room on South Fruit Street, near the Concord High School.

If a Certificate of Site and Facility is issued by June 30, Mr. Decker said, there is still the potential that some road clearing work could begin this fall. He said, however, that the bulk of the construction work would take place in 2010.

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