Yale-backed wind plan incites controversy

A wind farm in Searsburg, Vt., provides energy to over 2,000 Vermont households.
A wind farm in Searsburg, Vt., provides energy to over 2,000 Vermont households. Photo by Isaac Arnsdorf.

The town of Ira, Vt., population 452, has no stores, no gas station and no post office. What it does have are sweeping vistas of Vermont’s Green Mountains.

And the slopes of those mountains have wind — wind that a developer wants to harness to produce an estimated 240,000 megawatt hours of clean, renewable energy every year. The developer, known as the Vermont Community Wind Farm, is leasing the land from Wagner Forest Management, a firm that manages 4,000 acres on behalf of investors, one of whom is purportedly Yale University, according to a local state legislator who said he has seen records of the transactions.

The plan to erect some 60 windmills around nearby Herrick Mountain and Susie’s Peak would ruin the precious scenery, say the town’s residents.

“Suddenly you’re thrusting an industrial complex into what’s really a rural residential neighborhood,” said David Potter, who represents Ira in the Vermont House of Representatives. “In my opinion, [the windmills] don’t fit.”

Because the land for the development is deeded in various business names, nothing on the books actually says Yale, said Ira’s town clerk, Candace Slack. But, she added, people in the town believe Yale owns a stake. Multiple University officials did not confirm or deny the holding, though Wagner has been known to partner with Yale in the last decade.

Yale, for its part, keeps its holdings confidential so that other investors don’t copy them, said Jonathan Macey, a Law School professor and chairman of the Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility. But various holdings have been traced to Yale in the past, he added, and he has “no reason to disbelieve” that Yale owns this timberland.

Macey, whose committee hears grievances about the ethics of Yale’s investments, said he hasn’t heard any complaints about the Ira windmill project.

“Everybody’s unhappy with these wind turbines,” he said. “Everybody loves them if they’re somewhere else.”

Almost 30 percent of Yale’s endowment is invested in so-called real assets, such as oil, real estate and timber. Chief Investments Officer David Swensen declined to comment.

Potter himself owns land within half a mile of the proposed site of the 400-foot wind turbines — land that his family has owned since 1820. The spot where Potter shot his first deer, he said, would become the footprint of one of these windmills.

Besides the aesthetic impact, Potter warned of the environmental damage that would result from blasting to build foundations and clearing to build access roads. And the windmills make noise, a constant mechanical hum that Potter claims can cause insomnia, headaches and depression.

Jeff Wennberg, a former six-term mayor in nearby Rutland, Vt., and now the spokesman for the Vermont Community Wind Farm, denied that windmills cause such health effects.

“Wrong, wrong and wrong,” he said. “They certainly do make noise, but an awful lot of the fears people have are based on misinformation.”

Of all existing windmill developments, only 20 percent have registered noise complaints, he said.

But on the point of visual impact, he conceded. “It’s absolutely unavoidable,” he said. “The landscape is beautiful.”

Still, Wennberg emphasized the environmental and economic benefits of wind energy. All the energy the windmills would produce would be consumed within Vermont, and the state won’t approve the project unless it lowers or stabilizes energy costs, he said.

“This is an opportunity to tap into an extraordinarily valuable and rare resource,” he said. “This ridgeline is exceptionally good.”

Potter said he supports renewable energy on principle (and has done so in the legislature), just not when it means windmills in his backyard.

“And I’m proud of that fact,” he added, “because my backyard is important to me, although I suppose somewhere is everybody’s backyard.”

To try to ease the concerns of Potter and his constituents, the developer has hosted about six open-house meetings in the area to explain the project, which was first announced in April. The developer has also organized bus trips to existing wind farms so people could see and hear them in person. And the project has to go through an extensive permitting process, which includes public hearings.

The Vermont Public Service Board has already approved permits to build two temporary towers to measure the wind on the proposed site, said the board’s clerk, Susan Hudson. In doing so, board members rejected several motions of protest, such as one from the town of Clarendon about possible health and wildlife impacts.

The developer is now conducting engineering and environmental studies as it prepares the final designs, Wennberg said. He said they expect to apply for permits to build the turbines themselves by March 2010. After filing for permits, the process of public hearings takes about a year, he said. The Wind Farm is planned to be operational by late 2011.

“Quite frankly, quite a bit is still up in the air,” Wennberg said.

The town of Ira will hold a non-binding referendum on the issue, Potter said, though the date has not yet been scheduled.

Mike Novello, an analyst for Wagner Forest Management, confirmed that his firm manages some of the land but said he did not know — and, regardless could not say — on whose behalf.

Comments