Wind farm gets SEC approval
June 17, 2009
CONCORD — A 33 turbine wind farm on land in central Coös was given the green light by the state Site Evaluation Committee on Wednesday, June 10. The SEC voted unanimously, 7 to 0, to issue the needed state permit — a Certificate of Site and Facility — to Granite Reliable Power.
Although a very significant step, gaining the SEC's approval is by no means the final hurdle over which GRP must jump. The project must also win approval from the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE); the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which also will set requirements for warning lighting to protect aircraft; and Independent Systems Organization (ISO)-New England, which sets policy for the regional electric grid.
The SEC permit is subject to a number of conditions that will be memorialized by June 30 in a detailed written order by its outside counsel, Michael Iacopino of Brennan, Caron, Lenehan, and Iacopino of Manchester.
The motion to approve the permit was made by executive director Glenn Normandeau of the state Fish and Game Department, and seconded by Air Resources Director Robert "Bob" Scott of the state Department of Environmental Services (NHDES).
The motion was made at the conclusion of five hours of work on the part of chairman Tom Getz and the other six SEC members who had spent the day reviewing some 60 pages of potential conditions mined from a variety of sources, all compiled and categorized by attorney Iacopino: the town of Dummer; Public Counsel Peter Roth of the state Attorney General's Office; Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC); interveners Kathleen Keene of Jefferson and Lisa Linowes of Lyman of the Industrial Wind Action Group (IWAG); as well as provisions included in the state water quality and alteration of terrain permits along with other agreements, including requirements in the decommissioning agreement signed by both Granite Reliable and the Coös County Commissioners.
The motion approving the Certificate came nearly 11 months after GRP had filed its permit application on July 15, 2008.
The application for the GRP wind farm — 33 turbines, all 410 feet tall from base to blade-tip, with a total capacity of 99 megawatts to be erected in four ridgeline "strings" in Millsfield and Dixville with interconnection and laydown yard facilities in Dummer — was accepted by the SEC as complete on Aug. 14, 2008.
GRP was pleased with the outcome of Wednesday's deliberations.
"Granite Reliable Power applauds the work of the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee in conducting a thorough and open review of the project," said project manager Pip Decker, who maintains an office in the Old Court House in Lancaster. "We look forward to receiving the Committee's order in the near future, which will be a key milestone in the development of the proposed windpark."
Richard Roach of the ACOE said before the start of the day's deliberations that the decision as to whether the Corps would recommend that the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would require additional environmental review would likely be determined within the next few weeks. Horizons Engineering, PLLC, of Littleton, which has engineered all the roads and siting work for GRP's proposed wind farm, will submit all documentation by July 10 to the ACOE, Mr. Roach explained, noting that when reached the Corps' decision will be made public.
The other far less public hurdle is that Noble Environment Power, LLC, of Essex, Conn. — GRP's majority owner — must secure financing for the project, estimated between $257 and $300 million during a time of significant financial uncertainty across the country.
Earlier testimony given by GRP convinced the SEC, however, that the company does have adequate financial, managerial, and technical capabilities to move the project forward.
It was on that basis that the SEC did not include a number of conditions related to these areas.
SEC members were consistently clear that conditions in areas in which they had already determined GRP's capability and/or reliability should not be imposed and that they should not revisit decisions on which they had already declared themselves to be satisfied.
GRP, for example, will not have to prove once again that its engineers had looked at all viable alternative sites or that it would be possible to eliminate some turbines to reduce the project's size or eliminate the use of the high-elevation sites on Dixville Peak or Mt. Kelsey.
These issues have already been "reasonably addressed," Mr. Normandeau stated. "I believe that GRP needs all 33 turbines for the project to be financially viable."
If the turbine string on Dixville Peak were to be eliminated, for example, the interconnection study would have to be re-performed and GRP would lose its place in the queue, pointed out SEC member Mike Harrington, the senior staff engineer at the state Public Utilities Commission.
The mitigation settlement hammered out between GRP, AMC, and the state Fish and Game Department calls for GRP to give the state 1,735 acres of high-elevation spruce-fir forest for it to protect in perpetuity, as well as $750,000 to buy additional high-elevation lands and $200,000 to study sensitive species in the area.
This package is the key that allowed the SEC to find that GRP's proposed wind farm "will not have unreasonable adverse effects on the environment" as state statute demands, explained chairman Getz. What is proposed is "reasonable" in light of the high-elevation mitigation settlement, he said.
The SEC also rejected any suggested conditions that could be construed as either "micro-managing" by interfering with management decisions or "superfluous." The SEC also rejected suggested conditions that seemed inappropriate for them to demand from a private enterprise, such as visitor centers, kiosks, or other tourist-related amenities, and "beauty-screens" of trees on private property.
Mr. Harrington dubbed some of these ideas proposed by Public Counsel Roth as a form of "legalized blackmail" that had nothing to do with the GRP's obligations.
Mr. Scott of the Air Resources bureau said that, if adopted, such conditions would establish a "dangerous precedent" that would also apply to gas pipelines and power plants.
Most of Public Counsel's suggestions, including construction of a firehouse and/or purchase of fire engines, were not adopted.
When considering whether or not to adopt specific conditions, SEC members continuously looked to the record — testimony taken over the previous months or other documentation — to find a basis on which to base their decision.
SEC member Dr. Don Kent of the state Natural Heritage Bureau particularly sought to have some flexibility incorporated into the language in any conditions surrounding the future decommissioning of the wind farm, this to ensure that the ridgelines would not be subject to re-vegetation or restoration should another successor wind farm be proposed for the same — or nearly the same — sites.
The SEC members pointed out that it has enforcement authority to ensure that any and all conditions imposed would be carried out and that they would be ready, if necessary, to resolve any issues linked to the conditions they have imposed.
Dr. Kent also proposed that on-site post-construction bird-and-bat studies be done in years 1, 3 and 5, so that all scientists would gain a greater understanding of the impact of high-elevation turbines. The scientist said that he did not ever again want to be forced to admit that the impacts of a proposed wind farm were unknown, and the other members readily concurred.
The SEC also did not agree with Public Counsel's proposal to establish a technical advisory committee, similar to the one created for the now-completed Lempster wind farm project. All the SEC members agreed that the state Fish and Game Department should continue to take the lead in protecting wildlife, as specified in the conditions under which the Certificate is to be issued and to continue to communicate with other state and federal agencies as well as non-profit environmental and conservation organizations.
Stung by criticism that its avian consultants were not as thorough as expected, GRP has already contracted for additional breeding bird surveys to be done over the last few weeks and into the summer in an effort to fill data gaps. Dr. Kent noted that all additional information garnered would not only be useful to the SEC but also to Noble Environmental, which likely will propose other wind farms in similar terrain.
The SEC also adopted as a condition that significant high-elevation clearing would be prohibited from April 1 to August 1, so breeding and nesting birds will not be disturbed.
Safety measures consistent with those recommended by Vestas, the manufacturer of the turbines, were also adopted, including warning signs in a radius of 1,300 feet from each turbine base. GRP will also be required to abide by the blasting regulations of the state Department of Safety.
There were very few light moments during Wednesday's deliberations. Director Normandeau, however, argued against a condition suggested by intervener Ms. Keene of Jefferson. She suggested that the terms of Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) be renegotiated every year. She wrote that she believed that the county commissioners "were remiss in negotiating a figure that could be substantially higher than the current amount." Ms. Keene maintained that the commissioners did not recognize the extent of GRP's likely profits and recommended that a third party — "with expertise" — be brought in to negotiate on the county's behalf.
Director Normandeau scoffed at that suggestion, however, saying, "I don't think (Commissioner) Bing Judd (of Pittsburg) has ever missed a dime!"