Gregory Dennis: Ridgeline controversy, blowin’ in the wind

Is Vermont’s answer to climate change blowin’ in the wind?
Virtually all the climate change experts have concluded that yes, wind has to be part of the solution.
Unless renewable energy becomes a substantial portion of America’s energy mix, they say, we will continue our dangerous reliance on coal and natural gas for electricity.
Because these fossil fuels release carbon that is driving us over the climate change cliff, we have to find safer alternatives, and do it now.
But a vocal coterie of wind opponents has emerged in Vermont. And to the dismay of many, they have found a surprising ally in a local member of the state House of Representatives, someone who’s usually thought of as an environmentalist.
The stakes in this issue are high. A vocal minority is threatening to derail local production of green energy.
Given Vermont’s topography, we can be part of the solution to climate change through graceful wind turbines, strategically placed on carefully selected ridgelines where they capture the strongest breezes and convert them to clean energy.
Admirable small installations such as the new turbine at the Audets’ Bridport farm make a difference, too. But the real impact comes from larger wind projects like the one on Lowell Mountain in the Northeast Kingdom, and others such as the turbines in northwestern Massachusetts that help power the Jiminy Peak ski area.
Much of the anti-wind backlash has been driven by NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) opponents, who don’t want to see turbines on their local hillsides. But the opposition has found a sympathetic ear in the state Senate. This week the Senate is considering a bill to require regional and Act 250 review of any renewable energy project (including wind and solar) that would produce more than 500 kilowatts.
Vermont already has the strictest regulatory process in New England for these projects. If passed, the bill would require projects to go through an additional round of needless and expensive review — and would also make them subject to NIMBY-driven local vetoes.
Wind proponents point out that the state has rightly committed to install more wind and solar — and as a safeguard, the state Public Service Board is already empowered to require adequate safeguards to ensure these projects have minimal impacts in terms of aesthetics, noise and the land.
Moreover, several polls show Vermonters overwhelmingly support more wind energy.
Even after a year in which wind opponents have gained substantial attention, public support for wind projects on Vermont ridgelines remains high. A statewide poll by the Castleton Polling Institute last month found 66 percent of Vermonters favor ridgeline wind — nearly the same as the 69 percent favoring wind a year earlier, before all the hubbub.
Despite that public support, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy has plowed ahead with anti-wind legislation.
Wind opponents initially went so far as to advocate a three-year moratorium on wind development — a measure that would put us three years closer to the climate brink. This, in a state that’s already suffered millions of dollars in damage from Irene and has seen its legendary winters (a major economic driver) shorten due to climate change.
To the amazement of local observers, the draconian three-year moratorium on wind projects found a supporter in Paul Ralston, one of Middlebury’s two representatives to the state House of Representatives.
While Ralston talks a good game on some climate issues, he calls ridgeline projects “Walmart Wind.” (What’s next in the name-calling: “Exxon Solar”?)
Ralston also buys the argument that every Vermont ridgeline should remain free of white blades waving in the wind. “Our mountains make Vermont special, and I believe they have and will contribute far more in their natural state,” he says.
A nice idea. But it ignores the reality that our mountains are no longer in their natural state. They are, in fact, under assault from climate change.
With warming temperatures and bigger storms, our forested mountains are certain to suffer more storm damage. They’ll also see the northward retreat into Canada of the maples and other deciduous trees that make the Green Mountains so lovely.
We can choose thoughtfully placed, well-regulated wind projects as part of our responsible contribution to greener electricity. Or we can let the rest of the country continue to rely heavily on nuclear and coal as, over the next few decades, we watch Vermont’s mountain beauty disappear in climate decline.
The scary moratorium on Vermont wind is off the table for now. But the Senate bill up for a vote this week could well have the effect of shutting down any significant new renewable-energy projects in Vermont. At minimum, it would allow a local veto over environmentally valuable wind projects that the state has decided are in Vermont’s best interests.
Ralston, to his credit, says he doesn’t support Act 250 review of renewable energy projects. His colleague, Middlebury House Rep. Betty Nuovo, told me she doesn’t support a moratorium, and wind supporters count local Sens. Claire Ayer and Chris Bray among their allies.
But it’s clear that the misguided minority against responsible wind energy won’t give up easily. Even if the Senate bill fails, wind opponents will continue their fight.
“It almost doesn’t pass the straight-face test,” says Paul Burns, head of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “How can Vermont even think about retreating on renewable energy, given all that we stand for?”
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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