Wind power remains a vexing environmental and political issue, dividing residents within towns, dividing environmentalists among themselves, creating a divide between the state’s two candidates for governor.
The project proposed for southern Vermont by the Spanish company Iberdrola Renewables throws these issues into sharp relief, and the developer’s latest concessions raise serious concerns.
Vermonters seem to understand the importance of renewable energy in curbing the advance of climate change, and wind power in general has wide support in the state. But increasingly, specific projects have provoked ardent opposition at the local level, mainly because of the physical impact of towering wind turbines on fragile upland environments.
The project in the towns of Windham and Grafton would be the largest in Vermont. Originally there were to be 20 wind turbines in Windham and eight in Grafton. Last week the developers agreed to drop four of the turbines in Windham, but even at that, the project would produce up to 82.8 megawatts of power. There is not an inconsiderable amount. Though it would not directly power homes in Windham County or Vermont, it would flow to the grid, reducing the demand for fossil fuels whenever the wind was doing its work.
Reducing the number turbines was a concession to local residents concerned about noise and visual blight. Opposition in Windham has been fierce, and the company has pledged to honor a vote of Windham residents, which is due to take place next month. Opponents have many concerns, noise and visual impact among them. More broadly in Vermont, wind projects have provoked a kind of visceral opposition, mainly because of the way people feel about their mountaintops.
Act 250, the state’s principal land use laws, makes special provision for the pristine, alpine environments of the state’s high peaks. These are fragile areas that merit special protections, and anyone who has been to the top of Camel’s Hump or Mount Abe knows why.
The idea of erecting massive industrial machinery on large concrete pads and running roadways up the state’s ridgelines seems to many people to be a violation, with much potential for environmental harm. The potential for erosion and damaging effects on wildlife are obvious concerns.
Energy projects do not fall under the purview of Act 250, but even so, the Agency of Natural Resources has a role in proceedings before the Public Service Board in ensuring that mountaintop wind projects safeguard the environment. As wind projects have gone up, however, public confidence in the agency has waned. Confidence is not high in Windham.
To build confidence, or at least to build support, the developers announced last week that they would give out money to residents of Windham. It was as plain as that. The company would appropriate $350,000 for payments to registered voters to “offset” expenses. That means that individual voters would receive at least $1,162 a year.
The company would also be contributing property tax revenue to the town and other payments, providing a significant share of municipal revenues. But the payments to registered voters would go a step further. How is it not a bribe? How it is it not the buying of votes? The chairman of the Board of Selectmen in Windham, Frank Seawright, opposes the project, and he says that no amount of money will make the proposed site suitable. The naked offer of money to individual citizens may be even more corrosive to the civic life of the town than the potential environmental effects of the wind turbines.
Wind power is an issue in the race for governor. Republican Phil Scott opposes the expansion of industrial-scale wind in Vermont. Democrat Sue Minter supports renewable energy, including wind, because climate change requires a shift away from fossil fuels. Like most policymakers, Minter is reluctant to grant towns veto power over energy projects, though in effect Iberdrola has granted Windham veto power by agreeing to abide by the town vote. Minter agrees that the Public Service Board and utilities should grant towns substantial deference so that local concerns may be addressed.
Increasingly, local concerns on wind have threatened to slow the advance of wind power. Solar developments also provoke local opposition from time to time, but the danger posed to pristine environments by solar projects has not been as acute as the danger from wind projects. Sensing that the wind was blowing against them, Iberdrola has decided to pay off the voters. That is an astonishing corruption of the democratic process.