Swanton Wind Developers Put Project On Indefinite Hiatus

Dec 8, 2017

Developers of Swanton Wind have decided to put the project on hold. The move has opponents of the project cautiously optimistic.

Audio from this story will be posted.

"We're elated about Swanton Wind withdrawing an application," says neighboring resident Sally Collopy, who runs a Christmas tree farm. She's talking about Swanton Wind's announcement that it is withdrawing its application for a certificate of public good from the Vermont Public Utility Commission. The certificate is necessary for the project to be built.

But after more than two years of fighting the project, Collopy says she'd like to know why.

"Was it all about the money?" she asks. "Did the SIS disclose something unfavorable? And if so, shouldn't we be able to know that, and learn that reason why they withdrew?"

The SIS is a system impact study, which looks at what the project would do to the electric grid. The Public Utility Commission ordered the study completed before it made its decision.

Project spokesperson Nick Charyk, of VERA Renewables, says the study, thus far, hasn't revealed any major roadblocks for the project. But the six-figure cost of completing the study did play into the decision. However, Charyk says that's just one piece of the puzzle.

"Any one factor in and of its self isn't an insurmountable problem," he says. "But it's a really confluence of factors - some happening at the federal level, some happening now at the local, Vermont level."

Landowner Travis Belisle first proposed the Swanton Wind project in the summer of 2015. He was looking to construct a maximum of seven turbines, up to 500 feet tall.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

Federally, Charyk says tax credits for wind projects are uncertain at best under the tax bill now in conference committee on Capitol Hill. Charyk also says the political climate in Vermont is a problem for the project.

"At the state level we have a current administration - the Phil Scott administration - that has been vocally opposed to wind development and has made it clear that they're going to actively oppose it in all the ways they can," he says. "The regulatory environment, also, at the moment, I would describe as hostile to wind energy."

By way of example, Charyk points to new stringent sound rules that some say could shut down all new utility-scale wind projects in the state. Charyk says Swanton would have been grandfathered under the old rules if it hadn't withdrawn its certificate for public good application, but it still speaks to the current political climate.

"I do see the sound rule as part of a larger context where we are making decisions as a state that are making it harder to develop wind renewable energy," says Charyk.

Finally, Charyk says Swanton Wind had to to look outside of Vermont to find a customer for its power.

"The goal was to sell this to a Vermont utility and that didn't appear to be viable," he says. "And that is concerning because we've, as a state, set goals of producing a great deal more renewable energy. And we should be able to do that. And we should be able to sell that power in-state. And that wasn't something that was happening."

Some neighbors who organized against Swanton Wind when the project was first proposed say the announcement that it has been put on hold is a victory, but it doesn't bring closure.
Credit Melody Bodette / VPR

Although Charyk says it was not a factor in this decision, there was also a great deal of local opposition to Swanton Wind, from neighbors to nearby municipalities. The nonprofit Vermonters for Clean Environment also opposed the project. Annette Smith is that group's executive director:

"This wind project in Swanton is closer to more people, with taller turbines than have ever been used in Vermont," says Smith. "So it has many greater impacts than any other projects we've seen in some respects."

Smith says wind energy can work in Vermont, but it needs to be close to the demand and on a community scale.

"That is really what renewable energy is about, is building close to load serving local load," she says. "So, what kind of technology will work in Burlington?"

Meanwhile, in Franklin County, Sally Collopy says she's still hoping for more finality than the project being put on hold.

"Ideally we would like it to be ended for good - that it can't come back to the table, dismissed with prejudice," she says.

The developers say they do intend restart the project, but they can't predict when.