Phil Scott was riding his bike in Craftsbury a few weeks ago when the new Lowell wind tower came into view. Their dominance on the horizon took him by surprise, he said.
The Republican lieutenant governor who is running for re-election to a second term said he’s been hearing from a growing number of Vermonters jarred by Lowell and other proposed wind projects, prompting him to call for a two-year moratorium on wind projects to assess whether they’re right for Vermont.
In the lieutenant governor’s race and the governor’s race, where Republican challenger Randy Brock is also calling for a moratorium, the future of wind is emerging as a bigger issue than some anticipated and is drawing distinct lines between the candidates’ views.
Scott’s opponent, Democrat/Progressive Cassandra Gekas, opposes a moratorium. So does Brock’s opponent, first-term incumbent Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin.
“I’m hearing from more and more people,” said Brock, who held a meeting last month on the wind issue in West Rutland, where a nearby proposed project on Grandpa’s Knob is generating concern. “I think there is a nerve out there.”
Shumlin said he is undeterred in his support of wind projects. “I do believe we should be careful about wind in Vermont. I think we are being careful,” Shumlin said. “The Public Service Board process is working well.”
Last week, however, Shumlin made two moves that indicate he’s at least having to pay more attention to wind opponents:
• His public service commissioner told Newark residents that the Shumlin administration will urge the Public Service Board to seriously consider the town’s opposition to a wind project as it weighs approval of the project.
• Shumlin also issued an executive order establishing a panel that will look at how wind and other renewable energy projects are approved in Vermont. The order came after several environmental groups sent Shumlin a stern letter calling for changes to the process by which wind projects are approved.
The issue doesn’t fall neatly along political lines. Although support for renewable energy generally is a Democratic stance and opposition to the higher per-kilowatt cost of power is generally a Republican viewpoint, points of view cross political lines, especially when a project appears in one’s back yard.
Brock is finding potential support among some wind activists who never would have considered voting for him otherwise. That is the case even though a group of wind opponents has generated a write-in campaign for governor for one of their own, Annette Smith, who has vigorously challenged each large-scale wind project’s impact on the environment.
While both Brock and Scott may be in sync with a riled-up group of voters, there are also political risks to taking a stand against wind in Vermont. Polls indicate most Vermonters support wind power in a general way. Opposition to wind tends to cluster in areas where projects are proposed, which is typically the most sparsely populated areas of the state. As more projects are proposed, more pockets of opposition arise.
When it comes to campaign contributions, money is more apt to come from wind developers than from opponents. Shumlin has received money from several wind developers while Brock had no obvious contributions related to wind.
Time to reassess?
Scott surprised some, including his opponent, Gekas, when he spoke in favor of moratorium in a recent radio interview. He said the stance is not brand new for him, but one he came to in the last year. In June, he responded to a constituent’s complaints about wind power by saying he favors a moratorium.
“The strong concerns being expressed in all of these areas further reinforce, to me, the need to be very cautious as we move forward,” Scott said in his response to the woman. “I also believe it would be wise for the (Public Service) Board to consider a moratorium on new industrial wind projects until the payoffs of the current projects can be evaluated.”
That doesn’t mean he opposes wind power, Scott said. When he saw the Lowell turbines from his bike, he said, he didn’t find them distasteful, but was surprised by how pronounced they are atop the mountain. Green Mountain Power Corp. is building 21 turbines on the mountain in a project expected to be completed by the end of the year.
“It wasn’t an adverse reaction,” Scott said. “It was a bit of surprise.”
A moratorium would allow Vermont to gauge how residents and tourists feel about the turbines and to see what the impact is, he said. “I do feel we should reassess,” Scott said.
Gekas said she hadn’t expected wind power to emerge as a big issue in the campaign, but she senses it is growing. A former Vermont Public Interest Research Group employee, she said she embraces renewable energy, including wind. “I really do see wind power as an essential part of our renewable energy,” she said.
All forms of energy bring opposition, Gekas said, and wind strikes her as among the least objectionable. “I haven’t seen data or research to conclude it’s as destructive as some of the other things we’re doing on a daily basis,” she said.
She said she hasn’t seen the Lowell turbines since they started rising this spring, but she’s heard from people who are upset about them and who feel they’ve not been heard. State officials should be listening to those concerns, she said, but she believes the permitting process by which projects are vetted works and that the opposition is coming from a vocal minority.
“A moratorium is a mistake because it paralyzes,” she said. Like Shumlin, she argued that climate change requires Vermont to find alternative energy sources urgently. “We’re in a crisis. The answer in a crisis is not to paralyze.”
She said Scott’s vote as a state senator in 2010 against shutting down Vermont Yankee combined with his call for a moratorium on wind are in stark contrast to her views. She also characterized Scott’s call for a moratorium as opportunistic, an attempt to latch onto a hot and divisive issue.
Scott said he doesn’t think his stance will either bring him votes or lose him votes. His call for a moratorium alongside comments that he generally supports wind power are not quite what ardent wind opponents would want to hear. “If I was trying to win them over, I’d say no more wind,” he said.
Brock and Scott said they came to their viewpoints separately. Brock is more firmly opposed to large-scale wind projects, and has long been against state incentives for renewable energy projects.
As a state senator, Brock voted this year for an unsuccessful amendment calling for a moratorium on wind projects. He argued in recent years against a state program that granted some renewable energy projects higher prices for their power. He cited environmental, aesthetic and cost factors for his opposition.
Brock said he remains unpersuaded that wind power is a viable answer. While supporters, including Shumlin, say wind will reduce the carbon footprint, Brock said the reduction is minuscule. Nor, he noted, does wind provide the steady baseload power that would allow it to replace a coal-fired or nuclear plant entirely.
He said his call for a moratorium, which would not stop projects that are already in the permitting stage, would protect ratepayers from increased power costs.
“I am concerned about having ratepayers forced to pay significant above-market rates,” he said.
Shumlin said adding wind and other renewable energy sources is of prime importance to fight climate change. While opponents of wind power question whether paving mountaintops and putting up wind turbines does anything to counteract climate change, Shumlin said, “I feel very strongly that renewable energy projects create jobs, create economic opportunity and were are investing in our kids’ future.”
“When your hair is on fire, you don’t call for a moratorium to discuss the best method to put the fire out,” Shumlin said. “I’m convinced we have to build wind. Our hair is on fire.”
Although he’s heard opponents argue otherwise, Shumlin said he thinks the wind projects that have been built have had a fair public hearing. He said if Lowell residents, who voted for the project, had instead voted against it, he would have advised his Public Service Department to ask the Public Service Board to reject it. Opponents find his stance frustrating, as it remains unclear whose vote counts and when.
Opponents complain that Lowell was influenced by the fact that it will receive money from the project. Surrounding communities get no money and no say in the project, they argue, even though some of their some of their residents are just as close to the project. Asked about that, Shumlin indicated the debate can only go so far. “When you have energy projects you have divergent viewpoints,” he said. “I welcome the discussion. I have to make hundreds of tough decisions every week.”
When Shumlin established a new panel last week to determine how renewable energy projects should be handled, he said it was to make the process more predictable. Asked whether that meant he wanted the process to be faster or slower, he said, “I would like it to be quicker and ensure we have the confidence of local communities that they’re being heard.”
Shumlin said he rode by the Lowell wind project recently. “I happen to think both the Sheffield project and the Lowell project are beautiful,” he said. “However, I’m sympathetic and empathetic to those who don’t think they’re beautiful.”
Moratorium ’cause for concern’
John Soininen’s company has leased rights to more than 11,000 acres in Newark, Brighton and Ferdinand in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, where it hopes one day to build up to 35 wind turbines for a project called Seneca Mountain Wind.
Before the company applies for permits to do that it has to raise wind measurements towers and see if there is enough wind to make the project work.
Talk of a moratorium on wind projects, he said, “is obviously cause for concern.” Though supporters of a moratorium say that projects in the pipeline would not be affected, he said he’s not sure his project is technically in the pipeline yet.
“It sends a message to developers and investors that Vermont doesn’t know what direction it wants to go in,” Soininen said. “That seems to be in direct conflict with Vermont’s comprehensive energy plan.”
Soininen, who is vice president of development for Seneca Mountain Wind partner Eolian Renewable Energy based on Portsmouth, N.H., said his company has declared that if any of the three communities votes against the project once it’s been fully proposed and explained, it won’t be built.
Newark residents voted last month, 169-59, for a town plan that wouldn’t allow the wind project to go forward. That’s a vote that comes before the specifics of the projects have been outlined, and therefore doesn’t meet Eolian’s parameters.
Shumlin, however, acknowledged that the vote will carry weight with the state. Public Service Commissioner Liz Miller wrote to Newark Selectboard Chairman Michael Channon last week that the department that the town’s vote “deserves serious and significant consideration by the board.”
How many more towns will face the issue remains to be seen. According to the state Department of Public Service, four wind projects have been built and four more, including Seneca, are planned. At least six that were planned have been scrapped in recent years.
Paul Burns, executive director of Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which supports renewable energy, said he’d like to see the number of operating wind projects to increase from four to 12 in the next 20 years.
Drumbeat or vocal minority?
Brock drew an audience of about 100 at his meeting on wind in West Rutland recently. He held it, he said, after hearing a growing drumbeat of opposition. The town of Hubbardton recently voted 94-6 against the proposed Grandpa’s Knob win project.
“The message I heard was nobody’s listening to us. The Public Service Board doesn’t listen to us. The governor doesn’t listen,” Brock said. “There was a lot of anger.”
Smith, who is continuing a write-in campaign for governor that started during the primary election, said her sense was that Brock was interested in learning more about the issue in response to growing opposition to industrial-sized wind projects.
“There is a tide turning, no question,” Smith said.
Smith said she heard that some people picked up “Brock for Governor” lawn signs at last week’s meeting who would not typically vote Republican. Although she is running against him in her write-in campaign, she said she expects many of those opposing wind projects will vote for Brock because he’s a more viable candidate than she.
The push for Smith’s write-in campaign is on one hand an indication of the feverish pitch that the anti-wind campaign has reached, but Smith also failed to defeat Progressive Martha Abbott in the primary.
Burns, from Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said if the anti-wind movement is truly growing, Smith should easily have defeated Abbott, who went on to decline the nomination so that Progressives would not have a candidate challenging Shumlin.
“They couldn’t muster more than 340 votes,” Burns said.
How much traction will the issue gain in the election? Wind opponent Stephanie Kaplan of Calais said she’s unsure. The group of opponents is growing, she said, but, “The majority of people don’t pay any attention to anything.”
Sidebar: Wind in Vermont
In operation and/or under construction: 11 turbines in Searsburg; 16 turbines in Sheffield; four turbines on Georgia Mountain; 21 turbines in Lowell.
In the works: 15 turbines in Deerfield to expand the Searsburg project; approximately 30 turbines planned for Seneca Mountain in the Northeast Kingdom; proposed wind measurement towers for Windham/Grafton; 20 turbines proposed for Grandpa’s Knob in Rutland County.
The wind industry has been a strong contributor to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s re-election campaign. Among them:
AllEarth Renewables, a Williston renewable energy company involved in wind and solar: $2,000
David Blittersdorf, head of AllEarth Renewables: $2,000
First Wind, developer of 16-turbine Sheffield wind project that was completed in 2011: $2,000
Georgia Mountain Community Wind, developer of a four-turbine project under construction: $2,000
Vermont Renewable Energy Political Action Committee: $2,000
Matthew Rubin of Montpelier, wind developer whose East Mountain Demonstration Project was blocked by the state under the Douglas administration: $2,000.