Biomass plant may still gain approval
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | December 01,2013
File Photo by Len Emery
The East Ryegate biomass plant, one of two operating in Vermont, is shown in October 2012. A facility similar in size is proposed for North Springfield with a chip pile occupying about half an acre.
The developer of the proposed 37-megawatt wood-fired generating plant in North Springfield, along with the town, may have cleared a major hurdle in gaining state approval for the controversial $170 million project.
John Cotter, hearing officer for the Public Service Board, last month recommended against state approval for the project because increased truck traffic would have an adverse effect on the “orderly development” of the area. And a new access road to handle the truck traffic would require condemnation of private lands, Cotter said.
But the developer. the North Springfield Sustainable Energy Project, has secured “binding options” for the properties needed to build a new access road to the North Springfield Industrial Park.
In filings late last week with the PSB, the developers said condemnation of private property for the new access road should not be a concern for the PSB, wrote attorney Peter Van Oot, an attorney with Downs Rachlin Martin in Lebanon, N.H.
He said the developers and the town were “working in good faith” to build the new access road, and have “secured binding options on the subject properties” needed for the new road.
Van Oot said the town and the developers were trying to “meet their mutual commitments under the memorandum of understanding,” an agreement the town reached with the developers in June.
Under the memorandum, the developers would front the money to the town — estimated at about $1.5 million — to build the new access road, and that the advance funds would be used to offset the project’s future tax bill.
The project could be an economic boon to the region, as upwards of 600 jobs would be created during the construction of the plant, estimated to be worth $170 million. But only about 25 full-time jobs would be created at the plant. Town officials earlier this year estimated that the biomass project would increase the town’s tax base by 15 percent.
The project is facing an important federal deadline, since it must have a signed construction contract or construction has to start by the end of the year, in order to qualify for federal tax credits.
According to filings with the Public Service Board, it appears that nobody is entirely happy with a PSB hearing officer’s recommendation that the biomass project be denied state approval due to increased truck traffic in the North Springfield neighborhood.
The developer, the North Springfield Sustainable Energy Project, late last week asked the board for a hearing to discuss its objections to Cotter’s recommendation. A similar request was filed by the main opponents to the project, the North Springfield Action Group.
“Operation of this plant would push Vermont back in time and would underscore that Vermont is not serious about carbon emissions,” wrote NoSAG’s attorney, Gerald Tarrant of Montpelier,
“It would alert the world that while everyday Vermonters should make substantial changs to their lifestyles to address carbon emissions, major industry need not.”
Tarrant went on that the 37-megawatt project was “not even needed in the state of Vermont.”
However, that may be changing, according to a filing by the state Department of Public Service.
At the time of the PSB hearings in March and April, the state had said there was excess capacity in the region. But, the department also pointed out, the electric market continues to change.
“While acknowledging that the record in this matter is closed,” the filing said, “the Department feels obligated to inform the board that the most recent information on regional capacity forecasts, while accompanied by a degree of uncertainty, nonetheless appear to indicate that the retirement of existing generation may lead to a capacity deficit within the next five years.”
In late August, Entergy Corp., the owner of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, announced it would close the Vernon reactor at the end of 2014, removing 620 megawatts from the New England power market. Currently, none of Vermont Yankee’s power is sold directly to Vermont utilities.
Responses to Cotter’s Nov. 8 recommendation were filed late last week with the Public Service Board. Cotter, who heard weeks of testimony on the controversial project, made a recommendation to the full board, which has the final say in the project.
Geoffrey Commons, the director of public advocacy for the Department of Public Service, which acts as the public’s representative before the board, said the state believes Cotter erred in his interpretation of whether the project was needed.
Also weighing in on Cotter’s decision was the Town of Springfield and the Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission. The planning group said it would support the project if the developer was allowed to build a new access road from Route 10 to the industrial park, thus keeping heavy truck traffic out of a residential neighborhood.
And the town, emphasizing it was “not taking a position in favor of or in opposition to the project,” said that “due consideration” should be given to the town’s recommendations, the recommendations by the regional planning group, and land conservation measures contained in the town plan.
Springfield Town Attorney Stephen Ankuda noted that the town had entered into a memorandum of understanding with the developer of the project and Winstanley Enterprises, one of the partners in the undertaking. Ankuda’s letter made no mention of securing options on the land needed for the new access road.
The regional commission wants woodchip truck traffic monitored over the first year of the project, and the traffic evenly distributed on various routes to the industrial park.