My Side of the Mountain
In Lowell, a ridgeline divided
Looking north from turbine pad No. 19
After years of contention, debate and construction — not to mention political theater, civil disobedience, arrests and lawsuits — the turbines are at long last turning at Kingdom Community Wind, the headline-grabbing energy project atop the Lowell mountain range.
I first visited Lowell Mountain in early March of this year. There weren’t any turbines to be seen then, just a bumpy road, steep cliffs left behind from blasting and a steady stream of construction vehicles crawling up to the ridgeline.
I went back for the first time early this month — first, to tour the site with Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell and later to hike to the mountaintop with some of the wind project’s fiercest opponents. I’d heard months of speculation about what the wind project would be like, both good and bad, and now my question was simple: What would I hear, and see, at the state’s largest utility-scale wind project?
Eight months since my first visit, a hint of grass is starting to grow along the embankments of the road leading up to the mountain. The construction vehicles are mostly gone, replaced by turbine experts in pick-up trucks fine-tuning the machines — the staggeringly enormous machines — that now tower over the prominent Northeast Kingdom ridgeline.
The final turbine was finished in mid-October. Now all 21 are up, set into the crooks and rises of the mountain. The construction crew is buttoning up the site for the winter. Representatives from Vestas, the turbine manufacturer, are on site commissioning the turbines one by one. The construction crew will wrap up site work this week and return in the spring to finish planting and landscaping.
GMP project manager Charlie Pughe told me all of this in trailer four, one of the makeshift offices lined up in a one-time field off Route 100. By this time next year the trailers will be gone, the area graded, seeded and looking — as plans call for — more like a farm field than a construction site.
Inside the trailer we grabbed hard hats and neon vests. Powell came rushing in with a gust of cold air, bundled in a bright-pink Marmot jacket. She was making a routine visit to the site, her fifth since construction began. Bob Keller, a contractor with GMP who has worked on wind projects for 30 years, asked if Powell had any interest in venturing to the top of one of the turbines. She laughed.
“Oh God, no!” she exclaimed. “Honey, you’re never getting me to the top of a turbine.”
Instead, we stayed earthbound, winding our way up the mountain in Keller’s SUV. The mood was upbeat. Pughe said that the workers have started noticing vegetation growing back, including wild raspberries and tree saplings. Keller talked up the wildlife sightings — deer, moose, bear, turkey. “It’s going to be quite pretty,” said Powell.
The towers, which appear quite large from the road, are enormous on the mountaintop. Ten of the turbines were generating power on that day, their vast blades curved under the force of the wind as they made their methodical, mechanical rounds. “I think they’re quite beautiful myself,” Powell said.
At 400 feet tall, with 179-foot blades, these are undoubtedly feats of engineering.
“There’ve been people clamoring to come up and see them,” said Powell, and GMP plans to hold educational tours. She said that the “small but vocal minority” of opponents has sometimes drowned out the other side of the story — the enthusiasm of wind-energy advocates and the curiosity of a public eager to see the new turbines.
The temperatures were bracing this particular morning. We hopped out of the SUV at turbine one, the northernmost tower. With the wind blowing between six and nine meters a second, the turbine was functioning at about half power. The sound at the base of the tower came at us in a whoosh, whoosh, whoosh — distinct but not overpowering.
A few minutes later, back in the SUV, Powell talked about the opposition this project has generated. She’s not sure why it stirred up so much vehemence — though she speculated that it was because Lowell followed so quickly on the heels of Sheffield’s First Wind development.
“The reality is that you will always have opposition,” Powell said. “But did we anticipate that it would catch as much of an edge in the media? Maybe not.”
On her dark days, Powell said, she took comfort in the renewable-energy projects, such as hydro dams, that her predecessors at Green Mountain Power had sponsored.
“What heartened you on those dark days?” she asked, turning to Pughe.
He paused, then said, “A donut down at Joanna’s in Jeffersonville.”
They hit the usual talking points: This project, Powell said, is the most cost-effective form of renewable generation for GMP ratepayers. In developing the mountain — which required clearing fewer than 150 acres — GMP also conserved more than 2700 additional acres with conservation easements. GMP will make hefty tax payments to Lowell, and neighboring communities in the project’s “viewshed” will each receive a cut of a Good Neighbor Fund.
Despite these arguments, opposition to wind power in Vermont has only grown stronger since GMP broke ground at Lowell. Residents in Newark and Windham voted to amend their town plans to explicitly forbid ridgeline wind development. The increasingly media-savvy opposition staged protests this fall on the Statehouse lawn, and just last weekend unfurled enormous banners decrying Gov. Shumlin’s position on wind from the roof of the Capitol Plaza Building in Montpelier.
But Powell thinks time will be on Lowell’s side.
“Once we go through this process of people adjusting, and the opponents lose some of the traction of raw emotion, people are going to start to reconsider,” she said.
On this overcast day, the views from the mountains were obscured in places by thick swaths of fog. Pughe and Keller noted their favorite vistas — but Powell said that, as an infrequent visitor to the site, she’s more interested in the turbines. I asked her about lessons learned from Lowell. Taking a moment to gather her thoughts, Powell responded, “I’m really proud of the project for the company … I feel like you have to follow what you know is your North Star. I don’t know what else we could have done.”
Keller chimed in a few minutes later with this: “After a year or so of these being up here, people won’t even notice.”
But right now, it’s hard not to notice the turbines, and there are signs of quiet resistance around the mountain — in the little placards nailed to some fence posts calling for the protection of the Lowell ridgeline, or the political lawn signs supporting Annette Smith, the write-in candidate for governor who has made her name in part by supporting communities that are battling wind projects.
I noticed those signs for the first time when, a few days after my tour with Powell, I returned to the mountain — this time following Route 14 north past Craftsbury and navigating a dirt road in Albany up to the eastern base of the ridgeline. That’s where I met Anne Morse and Ron Holland, members of the Lowell Mountain Occupiers group that has vehemently opposed the wind project’s construction. Morse is a professor of outdoor education at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common; Holland is an emergency room physician from Irasburg.
It was snowing, and thick clouds shrouded the top of the mountain. We couldn’t see the turbines, but we could hear them.
We’d met up at the end of a rutted dirt road just past the little, white farmhouse of Don and Shirley Nelson, neighboring property owners to — and thorns in the side of — the GMP project. The Nelsons turned down an offer from GMP to buy the couple’s 600-acre mountainside farm and are locked in a property-line dispute.
As Morse, Holland and I prepared to set off on our hike, Don Nelson pulled up in his pick-up truck. He and his schnauzer clambered down from the cab. We chatted about the noise — a dull, rushing sound in the distance, like a fast-moving river. It was twice as loud the day before, Nelson said, and he’d driven around to his neighbors to collect signatures attesting to the nuisance.
“Some didn’t care much at first, but, boy, are they opposed now,” he said.
“It’s not over,” Holland told Nelson, and the three friends embraced. The retired dairy farmer blinked back the tears in his eyes, muttering, “God damn it.”
“It’s what it’s doing to Shirley,” he said a few moments later, shaking his head. Then he gruffly turned away, climbed into his truck and backed down the dirt road.
We made the roughly mile-long hike up the mountainside in single file. Neon pink and yellow ribbons marked the way, but for Morse, who has taken this hike dozens of times, the trail markers seemed irrelevant. We trudged over damp, fallen leaves and through the muddy ruts of an old logging road. The path grew steeper, the snow thicker, as we ascended.
Along the way, Holland and Morse told me about how they’d come to join the opposition. For Holland, it began with his deep skepticism about the project’s cost effectiveness. Morse was harder to win over. She lives off the grid and is a big fan of renewable energy. She’d been on the fence about wind for a long time, but was inclined to agree with the argument that, as she put it, “we all need to make some sacrifices.”
But Morse ultimately didn’t see the sense in harming an intact ecosystem in exchange for a project that she and Holland believe will make little, if any, difference in fighting climate change.
Atop the ridgeline, where an inch of snow covered the ground, we stopped at the line of trees posted with warnings about blasting and property boundaries. Holland and Morse set to work tidying up the campground where protesters had gathered for months. They folded up snow-dusted tarps and moved them into the one small tent that’s still in place. Holland grappled for a long time with a blue and green flag strung up in the trees, but ultimately couldn’t wrench it down. It hung, limp, wet and tattered, from a dead tree branch.
Atop the mountain, a stone’s throw from one of the turbines, the noise had grown to a roar that Holland likened to a jet engine.
I asked Holland what he had meant when he told Don Nelson, “It’s not over.” The turbines are up. Wasn’t it, in a sense, over?
“Truth and justice have a way of winning in the end,” Holland replied.
The trouble in Lowell is that truth and justice look quite different depending on what side of the mountain you’re standing on.
The trip down the mountain was speedier, even with Holland lugging a cast-off sign used in one of the mountaintop demonstrations. It reads “Corporate Service Board,” and skewers the Public Service Board that awarded the permits for this project’s construction. The roar of the wind turbines softened as we hiked. At the trailhead, we parted ways.
The turbines were still invisible in the early-winter squall, but they aren’t going anywhere. And neither, apparently, are their opponents.
Visitors can see the turbines at an open house hosted by the Lowell Mountain Occupiers on Sunday, November 18, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. More info at lowellmountainsnews.wordpress.com.