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January 06. 2013 1:03AM

Tracking NH's relationship with wind energy

Wind energy would power the equivalent of about 1 in 4 New Hampshire households if companies proceed with plans to build five proposed wind farms over the next several years to join three others already in service.

Opponents, however, say the higher costs, government subsidies and impact on the landscape aren't worth the price for renewable energy.

The state's third wind farm, a $120 million project in Groton featuring 48 turbines, became operational Dec. 28, joining wind farms in Lempster and the Dixville Notch area.

Companies are "looking at New Hampshire's wind resource and drawing up some of these proposals," said Timothy Drew, a staffer on the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee, whose approval is needed before wind projects get developed.

At least two more projects are expected to receive key decisions from the Site Evaluation Committee next month.

The committee will start its deliberations on the Antrim wind farm on Feb. 5 at the Public Utilities Commission office in Concord. The deliberations will precede a decision on whether to green light the construction. An appeal would delay the project.

For a proposed wind farm in New Ipswich and Temple, Timbertop Wind I LLC wants the committee to take over jurisdiction to streamline the process. A decision on that also is expected in February, Drew said.

Timbertop, a wholly owned subsidiary of an affiliate of Pioneer Green Energy, is asking the committee to take over jurisdiction because New Ipswich adopted a 2010 ordinance for wind farms and passed a stricter one in 2012 and because the two towns call for different standards for such projects.

"If you're spending millions of dollars as we have and the standards are changing midway through the process, that's a very difficult thing for a developer to spend money on if the standards continue to change," said Adam Cohen, founder and vice president of the Texas-based company.

Ed Dekker, a member of the New Ipswich Planning Board, told the New Hampshire Union Leader last week that the company's move is intended to thwart the will of the people who voted overwhelmingly to pass tight restrictions on wind farms in their communities.

As for why companies are eyeing New Hampshire, Cohen said he thinks it is "because New Hampshire has set up a process to approve projects" based on their merits.

The eight wind projects, if built, are predicted to generate about 361 megawatts of electricity.

That translates to enough to power more than 120,000 New Hampshire households, according to Tom Frantz, director of the electric division of the Public Utilities Commission, which regulates power companies.

He said his calculations factored in the fact that wind farms produce energy about 30 percent of the time.

But not everyone is ready to embrace wind energy.

Rep. Harold "Skip" Reilly, R-Grafton, has proposed legislation calling for a moratorium on all wind power construction until the state updates its energy plan.

"First of all, are we getting any benefit out of this power? It's all going into the grid and it's not being used by us," Reilly said. "It's not reducing our electric rates."

Hundreds of residents at various meetings have expressed opposition to the wind turbines, he said.

"They're ruining the aesthetics of the area here with these wind mills. The only thing they're benefiting is some foreign company to come in here" and hurt the views, Reilly said. "It's not giving New Hampshire anything but a headache."

According to a report released last month by the Environment New Hampshire Research & Policy Center, a non-profit environmental group in Concord, New Hampshire could save 23 million gallons of water and avoid the vehicle pollution equivalent of 12,000 cars annually with wind energy under construction by displacing energy generated from plants using fossil fuels.

But these trade-offs come with a cost.

The federal government offers a 2.2 cent-per-kilowatt-hour tax credit for operating wind farms.

New Hampshire law - known as the Renewable Portfolio Standard law - also requires power companies to generate or buy a certain percentage of power from renewable energy sources or purchase renewable energy certificates from suppliers through the New England Power Pool generation information system. For 2013, that percentage totals 12 percent.

"With the exception of energy from the (proposed) Northern Pass, which is priced at market and requires no customer subsidies, all new energy sources, including wind, are above market, especially now, due to the historic low natural gas prices," said Michael Skelton, spokesman for Public Service of New Hampshire, the state's largest electric company

"We are interested in purchasing any type of renewable energy at market prices. But the reality is renewables cannot be built based solely on market prices. They need subsidies, federal incentives like tax credits, and long-term power purchase agreements in order to be economic," Skelton wrote. "As a regulated utility charged with being a low-cost provider, PSNH cannot buy power from above market sources without state-mandated policies like the NH RPS law and the approval of regulators. Our purchase from the Lempster project, for example, allows us to fulfill a portion of the NH RPS law."

PSNH purchases 90 percent of Lempster's wind power. The Northern Pass project, which has yet to announce a new route for proposed transmission lines, is a joint effort by PSNH's parent company, Northern Utilities, as well as Hydro-Quebec and NSTAR.

"The drawback for wind is its reliability and intermittent nature, which is a further reason PSNH supports biomass and hydroelectric sources, which are highly reliable," Skelton said. "Base load energy sources, like Northern Pass for example, are necessary because intermittent energy sources are not always available.

"All New England states have renewable energy policies in place," Skelton said. "The recent uptick in new wind projects seems to indicate that developers are responding to demand driven by other state's policies."

Wind supporter Jim Rubens, a former state senator and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the state has "good wind resource."

As for the government's financial help, Rubens said, fracking and some other fossil fuel industries also receive subsidies.

"You drive new energy sources down the cost curve faster as a result of these subsidies and taxpayer-financed? R & D," Rubens said.

Congress renewed the federal tax credit for 2013.

Iberdrola Renewables, a Spanish company, has plants operating in Lempster and Groton, with a third, the Wild Meadows project, proposed for the Alexandria-Danbury area. The plants that are operating now are eligible for the tax credit while the Wild Meadows project, if approved, isn't projected to generate power until 2015, according to project developer Ed Cherian.

Cherian said Lempster, which became operational in 2008, "certainly met all of our expectations."

The Lempster wind farm has a 15-year deal to sells its power to PSNH and the NH Electric Co-op. Lempster's wind farm generates an operating profit, but it hasn't paid back its capital costs yet, Cherian said.

Its Groton plant has a 10-year power pact with NSTAR, PSNH's parent company.

Cherian said the energy market is complex, but said wind costs more than power from natural gas.

Cherian said "it's hard to speculate what the market for renewable energy" would be without the state requirements.

New Hampshire is "an expensive state to work in," he said.

The permitting process is "very comprehensive; its very expensive. It's many, many months of hearings" and requirements, Cherian said.

"It's probably scared off other investors because of the amount of cost and the amount of uncertainty in trying to make an investment in the wind farm," Cherian said.

Cherian also cited wind energy's favorable attributes.

"We're not using water. We're not using any combustion. There's no global warming impact. We're not extracting fossil fuels. These are all hidden costs in other types of electric generation," he said.

Companies conduct tests on possible sites to see what turbine configuration is needed.

"Without diving into the physics of it, a taller tower and a larger rotor both generally help increase the amount of energy each individual turbine can produce," Paul Copelman, Iberdrola's communications manager, said in an email. "That's not to say that we're necessarily seeking the tallest towers and longest blades at any proposed site. We have to evaluate specific site conditions, the likely behavior of the wind, as well as the cost of the machines themselves."

Lempster's project, for instance, called for a tower height of 256 feet, or 396 feet if you count to the tip of the turbine blades.

But not everybody is a convert.

The Schaefer family from Antrim's Salmon Brook Road, who live on property adjoining the proposed Antrim wind farm, wrote to the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee to oppose the project.

"To allow a nonresident, for-profit group to forever scar this area we have to live in daily and planned to retire in is nothing short of taking our constitutional rights from us," the letter said.

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Michael Cousineau may be reached at mcousineau@unionleader.com.



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