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Vermont's wind quandary

Will they demonstrate that remote ridgelines in the Northeast Kingdom are to be sacrificed to commercial wind development -- and that only a few souls way up north who have lost their peaceful retreat to strobe-lighted industrial monoliths will complain?

Testimony from two state agencies at a Public Service Board hearing this month vividly illustrated the deep split that exists in Vermont over the introduction of industrial-size wind turbines on ridgelines.

The Department of Public Service, which oversees utilities, energy and telecommunications, came out in support of the proposed East Mountain project in the Northeast Kingdom. A wildlife biologist for the Department of Fish and Wildlife expressed serious and foreboding concerns about it.

It is the job of Kurt Janson, as a hearing officer for the quasi-judicial Public Service Board, to make an independent decision in this controversial case -- the first wind turbine proposal in the state's remote Northeast Kingdom and the first since the smaller scale Searsburg facility was built eight years ago.

Gov. Jim Douglas has already made up his mind on the project. Spokesman Jason Gibbs said in an interview Tuesday that the Douglas administration supports the four 330-foot-tall wind towers being proposed for East Mountain -- but "only as a demonstration project that would allow for complete and comprehensive studies regarding the environmental impacts of these turbines."

This reasoning is troubling. What will they demonstrate, these enormous wind towers plunked down in the middle of the Champion Lands that the public just six years ago invested millions of dollars to... [truncated due to possible copyright]  

Testimony from two state agencies at a Public Service Board hearing this month vividly illustrated the deep split that exists in Vermont over the introduction of industrial-size wind turbines on ridgelines.

The Department of Public Service, which oversees utilities, energy and telecommunications, came out in support of the proposed East Mountain project in the Northeast Kingdom. A wildlife biologist for the Department of Fish and Wildlife expressed serious and foreboding concerns about it.

It is the job of Kurt Janson, as a hearing officer for the quasi-judicial Public Service Board, to make an independent decision in this controversial case -- the first wind turbine proposal in the state's remote Northeast Kingdom and the first since the smaller scale Searsburg facility was built eight years ago.

Gov. Jim Douglas has already made up his mind on the project. Spokesman Jason Gibbs said in an interview Tuesday that the Douglas administration supports the four 330-foot-tall wind towers being proposed for East Mountain -- but "only as a demonstration project that would allow for complete and comprehensive studies regarding the environmental impacts of these turbines."

This reasoning is troubling. What will they demonstrate, these enormous wind towers plunked down in the middle of the Champion Lands that the public just six years ago invested millions of dollars to protect as a wilderness refuge?

Will they demonstrate that remote ridgelines in the Northeast Kingdom are to be sacrificed to commercial wind development -- and that only a few souls way up north who have lost their peaceful retreat to strobe-lighted industrial monoliths will complain?

Will they demonstrate to the other wind developers from as far away as California who are smacking their lips over Vermont's windy summits that this state's ridgelines are open for business?

Searsburg in southern Vermont was considered a demonstration project, but it is so far out of date that it cannot compare with the new generation of wind turbines, which are more than 100 feet taller and lighted 24 hours a day under Federal Aviation Administration rules. Given what has happened in the wind industry since Searsburg was built in 1997, it won't take long for the East Mountain demonstration project to be outdated as well.

The Douglas administration thinks wind power will play a "favorable role" in the state's energy future, but the degree to which Vermont relies on commercial wind projects is still open to question and public debate, Gibbs said.

Commercial wind turbines on Vermont ridgelines pose one of the greatest environmental challenges to face this state. If there is to be a public debate, where will it happen? At Public Service Board hearings for the next group of wind developers who apply for a green light to build turbines on their private land, with local residents scrambling to gather a defense of the mountains?

With no overall state policy or guidance, will Vermonters watch wind turbines be erected piecemeal on owned or leased mountaintops as the state steps back and makes way for developers?

In poignant testimony to the Public Service Board, Thomas Decker, a wildlife biologist for the Department of Fish and Wildlife with direct responsibilities for the Northeast Kingdom, raised concerns about the towers' impact on the state's last wild place, the Champion Lands -- thousands of acres of land and conservation easements acquired by the state and federal governments in 1999 for wildlife management, public access and enjoyment.

"Our concern is that we have expended a great deal of time (decades), effort and millions of dollars to preserve the rugged and remote quality of this area," Decker said in his pre-filed testimony. "Key to this character and maintaining this remoteness is mountain top peaks with unobtrusive skylines. This project will directly impact this keystone feature and unravel the significance of the public investment."

Vermonters who have stood together to fight off billboards along roadways and encroaching development on hillsides are splintered by the prospect of wind power. Within state government, and among environmental groups and citizens, people are conflicted.

Renewable energy and conservation are attractive components of Vermont's energy future, but it is hard to justify putting 330-foot-tall towers and transmission lines on our unique summits for an inconsequential amount of power. The East Mountain demonstration project would produce about 0.3 percent of the state's annual electrical needs.

Allowing this development to go ahead, right in the middle of the Champion Lands, would be short-sighted and inconsistent with the values Vermonters have shared about their landscape for centuries.

Tell the governor

If you're concerned about wind turbines on ridgelines, call Gov. Jim Douglas at (802) 828-3333.


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APR 14 2005
http://www.windaction.org/posts/271-vermont-s-wind-quandary
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