Greg Bryant, a sixth-generation Vermonter and organic farmer, lives in Sheffield, Vermont, population roughly 730. From landfill methane harvesting to woodchip burning, he’s always believed in generating clean, renewable energy at home.
Bryant once was also an avid supporter of large-scale wind farms–until UPC Wind made plans to build a 16-turbine wind farm in his hometown. Now he vehemently opposes such projects, which he claims will overwhelm his stomping grounds environmentally and economically. Bryant and members of Ridge Protectors, a nonprofit he co-founded three years ago to oppose large-scale wind projects in the state, have raised $750,000 to stop the Sheffield project.
But not everyone opposes it: Sheffield residents voted 120 to 93 for wind in a non-binding poll.
Vermont–which has only one wind farm today– has historically imported most of its energy, but that could change in the coming years. In the next decade, the license for its Yankee nuclear power plant will expire and its hydro-Quebec contracts will run out, meaning the state could potentially lose the sources that provide two-thirds of its energy. In the meantime, UPC and other companies have started jumping in line with proposals for industrial wind farms to meet the state’s energy needs.
Sheffield isn’t the only community divided over turbines. Environmental groups were disappointed earlier this year when Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission rejected a wind farm on Redington Mountain. And a proposed farm off the shore off Massachusetts’ Cape Cod has been under debate for so long that books have been written about the controversy.
In Sheffield, tensions are running high as UPC awaits the permit necessary to launch the project.
Leslie and Kathy Newland support the wind farm, which, if built, will be clearly visible from their home.
“We were pro-wind before we ever knew that wind was coming to Sheffield,” says Newland. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s a clean business that will pay taxes.”
But members of Ridge Protectors say the benefits the company is promising aren’t sufficient to justify the impact the turbines would have on the wildlife, economy, and community.
“Our problem with the project is the size and the scale,” Bryant says of the 420-foot turbines. “We support projects that support the local community, and directly profit the town, not giant, state-wide projects.”
For their part, project developers say that over 20 years, the wind farm could bring $11 million to the town, operate at 30-percent efficiency, and produce 115,000 megawatt-hours per year.
Furthermore, UPC maintains that the project can move forward safely, pointing to its study on the potential impact of the turbines on bats–a major concern among critics. As a result of the study, the company has agreed to shut down the turbines during peak bat hours, at certain times of year, and in certain weather conditions.
Skeptical of the study, Ridge Protectors hired University of Vermont biologist William Kilpatrick to conduct acoustic monitoring tests on some of the same nights. His investigation found that significantly more bats visit the area than reported by the other study, which Ridge Protectors says is cause for concern.
Despite the potential risks, environmental groups support the project. According to Conservation Law Foundation attorney Sandra Levine, wind power could eventually contribute a significant portion of the state’s energy.
“Wind is completely free, and operating costs are relatively low,” she says. “The alternatives for Vermont are going to be more coal, more nuclear, more gas. A wind turbine is like a band-aid on your arm, and coal extraction is like amputation.”
Levine says that the controversy is less about efficiency and practicability than it is about aesthetics.
“I suspect that if wind power were invisible, 90 percent of the opposition would go away,” she says.
Sheffield residents argue that the project might cause property values to drop, and deter tourists who come to enjoy the town’s natural beauty. But pro-wind residents say the turbines might actually draw visitors.
No deadline has been set for Sheffield’s three-man board of selectmen to make a decision on the fate of the wind farm, but whatever the outcome, residents agree on one thing: The controversy has produced anything but neighborly sentiments.
“The communities have been devastated,” says Bryant.
By Tobin Hack
10 May 2007
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