The wind is shifting. The prevailing winds on wind power have never blown powerfully in one direction, but popular acceptance has allowed a few projects to go forward in recent years.
Lately, however, it has seemed that controversy about wind has had a cumulative effect, and Vermonters at the local level have begun to speak out with greater clarity and force against mountaintop wind turbines.
Wind has been a vexing issue in Vermont because it pits against each other two fundamentally important values: the need for sustainable energy and the need to protect our cherished landscape. Balancing these values is difficult because judgment in some respects rests on aesthetic considerations that are unique and subjective.
The wind project in Sheffield, north of Lyndon in Caledonia County, is a case in point. In Sheffield 16 turbines sit atop Granby Mountain and Libby Hill with a capacity for 40 megawatts of power. The subjectivity of their aesthetic impact can be appreciated from the fact that one can drive on many of the roads of Sheffield and surrounding towns without a glimpse of the turbines. Round a bend in the road, and you may get a glimpse of two or three of them, giant arms rotating gracefully in the air. Round the next bend and they are out of sight.
For some people the wind mills are probably a significant visual presence. For others they are an intriguing curiosity in the distance. It's hard to form an aesthetic judgment that makes sense to everyone.
Because the aesthetic question is essentially a local one, utilities have gone to great lengths to earn local support. Green Mountain Power received approval from Lowell voters before proceeding with their divisive project there. Of course, there is money to be gained from allowing one's property to be used and in tax revenues obtained from the utility.
It's hard to gauge how aesthetic judgments are affected by dollar signs; nevertheless, local views about wind have until now played an important part in determining if a project would go forward.
A project in Rutland County affecting the towns of Ira, Middletown Springs and Tinmouth ran afoul of local objections to the prospect of large turbines set atop cherished mountaintops. The developer never got out in front of public opinion, which coalesced in opposition before he could mount a persuasive case for his project.
Now a $100 million project proposed for Grandpa's Knob in Rutland County has hit a brick wall of opposition. Select boards in Castleton, West Rutland, Pittsford and Hubbardton have voted to oppose the project proposed by Reunion Power. Residents have raised familiar arguments about the wreckage that construction would do to a pristine environment, about noise and about visual blight.
The Grandpa's Knob project has also touched a sensitive historical nerve because the wind turbines would be in the vicinity of the Hubbardton Battlefield, site of the only Revolutionary War battle fought on Vermont soil.
The wind debate has created an odd reversal. Until now wind power has been viewed as a benign alternative to the big, bad, polluting sources that include coal, oil or nuclear power. But now wind projects are coming with big money behind them, and local residents out on the back roads of Hubbardton or Pittsford feel they are up against big-time investors trying to ride roughshod over local interests.
So it was that the Select Board in the tiny town of Windham expressed a high degree of skepticism last week at a meeting with representatives of companies that want to put a wind-measuring tower on Glebe Mountain in Windham, Grafton and Townshend. One of the companies was Iberdrola Renewables, a Spanish company that is one of the largest wind developers in the world. The spokeswoman for Iberdrola said the company would respect local wishes but urged local residents not to be too hasty in opposing the project.
Increasingly, however, it seems that people have made up their minds about wind. A large wind farm - with 20 or 200 large turbines - may fit well on the open plains of Texas, the Palouse of Washington state or the coast of Denmark. The close, intimate, untrammeled landscape of Vermont is not such a good fit. That is the message that wind developers are hearing.
In the end their money may not do the trick. Even the well-understood need for sustainable power may not tip the balance. From Windham to Hubbardton and beyond, the wind is shifting against wind.