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An experiment in wind

The wind energy project planned for Lowell Mountain continues to move forward, and construction is likely to start soon. But opposition to the project has been heartfelt and fierce, raising the question of how far Vermont can go in using its ridgelines for wind power.

Green Mountain Power has received a certificate of public good from the Public Service Board and is awaiting a final go-ahead from the board following repairs to a wetland that was damaged by a nearby property owner. Opponents plan to appeal the PSB’s approval and water quality permits from the Agency of Natural Resources, but the utility need not wait for the outcome of those appeals before beginning construction.

The project has divided towns of the Northeast Kingdom near the project. Lowell voters approved the project, though opposition within Lowell continues to exist. Vociferous opposition has come from residents of nearby Craftsbury and Albany who view the installation of 21 450-tall wind turbines on top of Lowell Mountain as an environmental travesty.

Opponents gathered in Montpelier for a rally last week and delivered a letter to Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has been a supporter of the project. They have criticized the project on many fronts.

In the eyes of critics, the project is physically inappropriate for the remote and fragile upland ecosystem of the Lowell Mountain ridgeline. They say it will cause erosion, damage water quality, ruin habitats and harm wildlife. They also raise many of the common concerns associated with large wind turbines: the problem of noise, lights and damage to bats and birds.

At a fundamental level, one segment of the region’s population sees the wind project as an affront. As Vermonters do everywhere, residents of the Northeast Kingdom have a deep attachment to the unspoiled beauty and the flourishing flora and fauna of their surroundings. The idea that roadways will be built to the mountaintop and that construction sites will be blasted out of the ridgeline violates their sense of place.

Wind projects have provoked these sentiments before – in Londonderry and in Ira, where opposition dissuaded developers, and in Sheffield, where a project has won approval and is now under construction despite stout opposition. A project in East Haven previously ran afoul of regulators concerned about wildlife.

The Lowell project has galvanized the opposition starkly. Lowell, along with Sheffield, now will become a test case for whether Vermont can tolerate large wind generation projects.

Supporters of the project say it received close scrutiny from the Agency of Natural Resources, which examined its likely effects on wildlife, water and the surroundings. GMP was forced to alter plans in order to safeguard habitats. While the project will bring development to a remote, previously untouched setting, regulators concluded that the impact of the development would not cause undue harm. Yes, there will be roads for construction and maintenance, but in the eyes of the regulators, they will be appropriate, acceptable roads.

Shumlin and some environmentalists have promoted wind power in Vermont as one weapon in what they hope will be a diverse arsenal of sustainable technologies that will provide electricity while curbing the emission of greenhouse gases. This is a weighty factor on the side of wind power – not because wind will be the solution to our energy problems but because in order to work, our solution must incorporate all available sustainable technologies. Given the climate crisis, we cannot afford to be too picky about which technologies to rely on.

Nor can we afford to ruin our rural landscape or to make our small towns uninhabitable or blighted by industrial development. That’s why the cry of protest from the Northeast Kingdom about the Lowell project cannot be dismissed.

Supporters of wind power view it as an important alternative and assert that wind turbines are not ugly and, appropriately sited, do not ruin the landscape. This is the premise underlying what will amount to the serious alteration of the landscape of Lowell Mountain.

The projects in Sheffield and Lowell now will offer Vermont a chance to see wind power in action within view of a wide region. We will learn whether the noise they generate makes life nearby impossible. We will discover the toll they take among wildlife, including endangered bats. Opponents don’t relish the role of guinea pig, but in fact, the state has entered on a kind of experiment. We will learn whether wind projects are as benign as the developers promise or whether they wreak havoc in the environment, or somewhere in between. Indeed, Lowell and Sheffield may well show us both the potential and the limits of wind power in Vermont.