MONTPELIER — Opponents of wind development on Vermont’s mountaintops — in particular a project in Lowell that is poised for construction — had some choice words on Wednesday for Gov. Peter Shumlin and Green Mountain Power, the utility developing the Lowell project.
“I came out to get rid of Shumlin,” Gay Mason said, as he explained why he made the trip from his home in Albany to Montpelier to protest the Lowell project. “He’s going to be a one-term governor.”
About 75 activists rallied on the Statehouse lawn near Shumlin’s office to oppose the project and all large-scale wind development in Vermont.
“Shumlin, do you hear us now?” Lukas Snelling, communications director for a group that opposes the Lowell project, Energize Vermont, bellowed into a microphone.
After speeches, chants, a rendition of the Vermont state song, and a performance by Bread and Puppet Theater, a handful of activists took a letter to the governor’s office on the fifth floor of the Pavilion Building, that urges him to renounce his support for the project.
“We are the sons and daughters of Vermont, more so than the utility executives and energy companies that have been lobbying in support of wind,” the letter stated. “We therefore implore you to hear us now, and turn back. There is a better way.”
Shumlin was not in Montpelier to receive the letter and hear the message from the protestors who convened in the capital from towns around the state. Since last week he has been in Canada, first to visit hydroelectric dams in Labrador and now at his vacation home in Cape Breton.
Opponents also denounced Green Mountain Power and its influence over energy policy and were planning to travel to the utility’s headquarters in Colchester to protest there.
“We’re saying no more, no more to Green Mountain Power setting the agenda,” said Snelling.
Snelling told the crowd that he and others had heard that Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell and Shumlin were together in Canada, but representatives from Green Mountain Power and the Shumlin administration both said that was untrue. Powell hasn’t been to Canada at all since Shumlin left for the country last week, said Green Mountain Power spokeswoman Dotty Schnure.
“Because both Mary and Peter believe in wind power, they have decided to outright lie at a rally,” said Schnure.
Protestors came from towns near the Lowell project, some of them riding a school bus that started in Albany and made a stop in Craftsbury. Others at the rally were from Montpelier and others came from Ira, a town in southwestern Vermont that has so far staved off an attempt to build wind towers on nearby ridgelines.
The project in Lowell, known as Kingdom Community Wind, calls for 21 towers over 450 feet tall to be built on Lowell Mountain and would be the largest wind development in Vermont.
It has been a divisive project since it began three years ago, but opponents have lost every round so far and construction of the $150 million project is expected to begin soon. The project has received all its major permits and awaits a final approval from the Public Service Board.
The Lowell project was the focus of many of the protestors’ angst, but the message was clear: Large wind projects should not be built anywhere in Vermont.
A 16-turbine project is already under construction in Sheffield, and the state’s only existing windfarm is in Searsburg.
Potential harm to wildlife habitat, water quality, the divisiveness of the projects in communities, damage to the mountain, and aesthetics were among the reasons protestors oppose large-scale wind projects.
“It’s going to look like hell,” Mason said, referring to the Lowell project. “It’s going to ruin the mountain.”
One of the main messages protestors delivered was that solar power is better than wind, in part because solar panels don’t need to go on mountaintops and can go in already developed areas.
“Solar is a way better way to go than wind, and I don’t think we should be destroying the communities,” said Tim Coleman, who lives in Albany.
Snelling said the protestors were gathered to fight “for our energy liberation.”
“We can have the character of Vermont we love and also have the renewable energy we need,” said Snelling.
Activists said they are hoping Green Mountain Power will pull the plug on the Lowell project, something that is highly unlikely.
Opponents plan to keep fighting in the courts and have already filed notice with the Vermont Supreme Court that they will appeal the Certificate of Public Good that the Public Service Board awarded the project, said Steve Wright, a Craftsbury resident who helped organize the protest.
They also plan to appeal the water quality permits the state Agency of Natural Resources approved last week.
“This is not even close to being over,” said Mike Nelson, of Albany.
Green Mountain Power can begin construction before the appeals are resolved. But construction is still on hold as the utility waits for the Public Service Board to sign off on repairs made to protected land at the site of the project, said Schnure.
The owner of land where the project is being developed tampered with a wetland area in July that was part of a conservation easement set aside to offset the impact of the wind project, which entails clearing about 175 acres, said Schnure.
“We need to wait for the board to say, ‘Definitely you can start construction’,” Schnure said.
After that, Green Mountain Power is prepared to begin, she said.
“Once we get all the approvals we can start up pretty quickly,” said Schnure.
Green Mountain Power has been pushing for a speedy permitting process so it can qualify for $40 million in federal tax credits. To get the tax credits, the utility must be operating by Dec. 31, 2012.
Schnure said anytime there’s a project like this in Vermont there will be opponents.
“But you know, this project has been examined in great detail,” she said. “The concerns opponents have raised have all been examined by regulators at the Agency of Natural Resources, and the Public Service Board reviewed all those issues and determined the project is in the public good.”
Sue Allen, a spokeswoman for Shumlin, said the governor will not withdraw his support for the Lowell project despite the pleas from protestors.
“That is not going to happen,” Allen said. “He believes the Lowell project will help Vermont achieve a mixed portfolio of renewable energy sources.”
The environmental concerns have been addressed through the permitting process, said Allen.
The odds of stopping the Lowell project appear slim, but it can happen, opponents said.
“During the revolution we were facing slim odds and won,” said Nelson, referring to the Revolutionary War between America and England. “And I think this is a power revolution we can win.”