Controversy swirls around wind power; Proponents expect economics, environmental concerns to quiet opposition
Has the momentum shifted to the opponents’ side in the debate over development of wind power in Vermont?
No, insist the advocates of this form of renewable energy. All that’s changed, they insist, is that a vocal minority has succeeded in capturing media attention through dramatic protests such as the recent road blockade near the Lowell wind project. Proponents also say that the leaders of the opposition are spreading disinformation when they warn of negative health and environmental consequences from large-scale wind projects.
The most recently available poll, conducted in May by WCAX, shows that a sizable majority of Vermonters do support wind-energy development. Of 607 poll respondents, 70 percent said they favor building wind turbines on Vermont ridge lines, while 17 percent oppose that option, with the remainder saying they aren’t sure. The Shumlin administration and a majority of legislators also support harnessing the wind as an electricity resource in Vermont.
For its part, the opposition describes the poll findings as reflecting false claims by wind proponents that have only recently begun to be challenged broadly and effectively. The momentum is indeed shifting, says Annette Smith, the head of a group called Vermonters for a Clean Environment. And Smith is striving to tip public opinion further by promoting a statewide mobilization against virtually all forms of wind power.
“More and more Vermonters are seeing for themselves what these projects involve, and they’re horrified by it,” Smith says. The 63-megawatt Kingdom Community Wind project in Lowell now under construction and an 11-megawatt development on Georgia Mountain near the border of Chittenden and Franklin counties “are both going to be disasters for their communities,” Smith predicts.
She and local activists fighting what they deride as “industrial wind” cite the noise from whirring turbines and the impact of land clearance and road building as among their primary objections. Many also denounce tall towers on ridge lines as an aesthetic blight. Issues regarding the turbines’ effects on local and migrating wildlife have been raised as well.
“We’re just overwhelmed with complaints” about wind projects in Vermont, Smith says.
The allegedly adverse effects are not justifiable, opponents add, because wind energy will make only a small contribution to meeting Vermont’s comparatively low electricity demand and will thus do little to reduce the output of climate-altering greenhouse gases.
Democratic State Representative Tony Klein, a key legislative supporter of wind energy, rejects all the claims put forward by opponents. Klein also takes a personal swipe at the leading anti-wind organizer, charging, “Annette Smith doesn’t have much credibility around the State House.” Smith responds to that attack by declaring, “Tony Klein is complicit in destroying people’s lives.”
Although supporters insist that their foes haven’t altered the terms of the debate, a note of defensiveness can be heard in some of the rejoinders to criticisms voiced by Smith and others.
Klein, for example, downplays the projected scope of wind development in Vermont.
“I’d be surprised if we see even six projects operating around the state,” he says. “There’s a limited number of places that are appropriate for large-scale wind.”
Only two commercial wind projects are currently operating in Vermont.
Green Mountain Power built a set of 11 turbines in Searsburg 15 years ago. The project produces 6 megawatts of power, enough to supply electricity to about 2,000 average Vermont homes.
Boston-based First Wind opened its 40-megawatt Sheffield wind farm last October. Its 16 turbines are spinning out enough juice to meet the needs of about 15,000 households.
In addition to the projects now underway in Lowell and on Georgia Mountain, Iberdrola Renewables is planning to expand the Searsburg facility onto adjoining U.S. Forest Service land. The Oregon company wants to erect 15 turbines with a capacity of 30 megawatts. The project is tied up in court, but Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman says the company is confident it will win clearance to move ahead with its eight-year-long Deerfield Wind initiative.
For comparison, the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon is a 605 megawatt plant and the McNeil cogeneration (gas and wood) plant is a 50 megawatt facility in Burlington.
A few other proposals for sites around the state are at the early planning stages. Eventually, says David Blittersdorf, head of Williston-based AllEarth Renewables, many more than six wind projects will be built in Vermont. State Representative Klein’s projection is “way low,” Blittersdorf contends.
“There’s huge wind resources up in the hills, and large-scale wind is going to be a major element in Vermont’s renewable energy portfolio. If only six projects are built, we’re all in deep trouble,” Blittersdorf says, pointing to the enormous contribution fossil fuel-burning power plants are making to global climate change.
AllEarth Renewables is a major developer in Vermont of solar power arrays as well as wind turbines. Rejecting suggestions that solar might be a better choice for Vermont than wind, Blittersdorf says both forms of renewable energy are needed. And he points out that generating power from the wind is currently much cheaper than relying on the sun.
Several small-scale wind works are operating in Vermont or being built at ski resorts and on other commercial properties. These 100-to-150 kilowatt turbines are not exempted from Smith’s scorn.
“Three-blade technology, no matter what its size, creates problems,” Smith says. She cites, for example, noise complaints from a neighbor of a single Green Mountain Power turbine installed last year at the Northlands Job Corps site in Vergennes.
Wind developers and advocates say claims about noisy turbines are exaggerated. First Wind spokesman John Lamontagne says, for example, that his company’s Sheffield wind farm has been the target of noise complaints from only one resident. The project has consistently been found in testing to be well within the state’s “rigorous” standards for decibel output, Lamontagne adds.
He also points to the “unique environmental protections” that have been incorporated into the Sheffield development. A system for treating water runoff from the site to control pollution has been put in place at considerable expense to the company, Lamontagne notes.
Opponents suggest that wind projects have not been adequately assessed by Vermont regulators. But advocates such as Klein say that the state’s review process is “the most arduous in the country.” Copleman, spokesman for the proposed Searsburg expansion, adds that Vermont’s permit process is “very thorough, science-based, predictable and not one we would run away from.” Vermont isn’t uniquely tough, Copleman notes. Wind energy proposals in almost any state will involve a “multi-year engagement” on the part of developers, he says.
Klein also aims to counter arguments that Vermont doesn’t need wind power because it has such a small carbon footprint.
“If we’re going to use energy,” he says, “we have a responsibility to produce it.”
Wind in fact is not such a small component of the state’s electricity production, adds Dorothy Schnure, a spokeswoman for Green Mountain Power. She says that when the utility’s Lowell project begins operating, wind will account for about 8 percent of the electricity generated by GMP itself. “That’s not a negligible amount,” Schnure observes.
The state would be foolish, Klein says, to increase its reliance on carbon-based fuels such as natural gas, even though its price is currently much lower than that of any renewable source of energy.
“To think that the price of natural gas will stay where it is now is just nonsense,” Klein asserts.
Costs have dropped in part because vast new natural gas deposits have been tapped through the process known as fracking, which has been banned in Vermont on the grounds that it wreaks environmental havoc. (See accompanying story.)
Natural gas is also not a generator of electricity, and demands for electricity are certain to continue climbing, notes Gabrielle Stebbins, director of the trade association Renewable Energy Vermont.
She argues: “What’s the solution we keep hearing about for getting off fossil fuels in transportation? Electric cars.”
Stebbins’ group is offering panel presentations to any Vermont town committee or select board interested in learning about wind energy. She says the panels’ members include scientists and other experts but not business representatives who stand to profit from wind developments.
“We want to give a fair overview,” she explains. But Stebbins’ commitment to providing an inclusive perspective doesn’t encompass wind project opponents. She says their “gravely inaccurate” accusations have gotten enough publicity already.
Ultimately, Stebbins maintains, the campaign against wind development will be trumped by concerns over the planet’s health.
“The more floods we have, the more droughts, the more extremes we have in our climate, and as they begin to affect our food supply, you’ll see positions changing on this issue,” she predicts.
Klein similarly finds wind opponents to be short-sighted and blindly self-interested.
“It’s just parochial,” he says of their efforts to block particular projects.
In the near term, however, wind energy protestors are succeeding in delaying construction of commercial wind farms and thus endangering their financial viability. Abby White, a spokeswoman for NRG Systems in Hinesburg, says the opposition has put up impediments that are jeopardizing developers’ ability to persist with costly regulatory battles.
On top of the resistance that has arisen in Vermont, wind developers must cope with unfavorable national political circumstances. NRG Systems, which makes instruments that assess a site’s suitability for wind turbines, has laid off 30 employees in the past two months, leaving about 70 on the job. White faults a sharp drop in investment in wind projects due to uncertainty over whether a federal production tax credit will be renewed prior to its scheduled expiration at year’s end.
Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has promised to kill the tax credit, and the Republican-controlled House may not agree to an extension prior to the November elections — if then. The Obama administration wants the incentive to remain in place. And it is seeking to cultivate the support of Republicans in windy states that have benefited from the tax credit.
The American wind power industry is “already crashing,” David Blittersdorf adds. He says it’s a victim of “federal policy and the cheap energy gotten through fracking.”
Blittersdorf suggests, however, that the commercial-scale wind sector will start to recover two or three years hence.
Iberdrola, the Deerfield Wind developer, has also resorted to layoffs in response to a fall in investments. The company has put more than $6 billion into wind and solar projects in the past three years, spokesman Copleman says.
“The production tax credit remains an essential component of the wind industry,” he notes. “It remains a proven driver of investment and jobs for American workers.”
In the case of Green Mountain Power, money saved through the wind tax credit gets passed through to rate payers, says Schnure, the utility’s spokeswoman.
“Every penny of it is used to lower costs for our customers,” she says. Schnure points out that Green Mountain’s Lowell project is expected to come online before the end of the year in order to qualify for the production tax credit.
Missing in the increasingly loud debate over wind energy in Vermont is the voice of the state’s business leadership.
“The chambers have been awfully quiet on it,” observes Stebbins of Renewable Energy Vermont. Business interests have, on the other hand, spoken firmly in favor of continued operation of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
Asked for the state Chamber of Commerce’s position on wind energy, president Betsy Bishop says she doesn’t feel qualified to speak on the topic.
Kevin J Kelley is a freelance writer from Burlington.