MONTPELIER – Opponents of ridgeline wind development will introduce a bill in the Senate next month that seeks a temporary ban on the installation of turbines on Vermont’s mountaintops.
A similar legislative maneuver during the last session never gained traction. But lawmakers pushing the three-year moratorium say positions have since evolved. And a legislative end-run around the regulatory process that governs energy projects, key elected officials say, looks to have majority support in the 30-member body.
“I have been told by a lobbyist that the heads are there in the Senate,” says Sen. Joe Benning, a Caledonia County Republican and lead sponsor of the moratorium.
“And I think the reason you’re seeing folks come around on this issue is that members are beginning to see projects proposed in their districts, and so are beginning to understand what it actually means for their constituents,” he said.
Senate President John Campbell says the vote count in favor of the moratorium could be as high as 18.
“The landscape has changed considerably in the eight or nine months since we last visited this,” he says.
The Senate next year will become the latest battleground in a years-long debate over this controversial source of renewable energy. If the dueling factions agree on one thing, it is the magnitude of the stakes.
To people like Benning, a proliferation of mountaintop wind projects would mean the desecration of the same natural resource from which this state draws its name.
“Were talking quite literally about blasting off the tops our mountains,” he says.
To people who have spent the last decade nurturing the state’s burgeoning green-energy movement, the legislation could kill not just wind, but the entire renewable-energy sector.
“It won’t just be wind that leaves this state if we pass something like this. You can say goodbye to solar, to hydro, to biomass, to everything,” says Rep. Tony Klein, an East Montpelier Democrat who has helped oversee passage of key renewable-energy mandates.
“Because if we have people using the legislative process to kill a wind development that someone doesn’t want to look at one year, then you can be sure neighbors of the solar field are going to be in here the next,” Klein says.
Vermont almost certainly will not see a moratorium on ridgeline wind development, regardless of the outcome of any votes in the Senate. The House looks to be less keen on the concept, and Gov. Peter Shumlin says environmental and economic imperatives demand that the state adopt an aggressive posture on renewable energy development of all kinds.
“We just think the moratorium sends the wrong message regarding our commitment to renewable energy,” says Chris Recchia, newly installed commissioner of public service for the Shumlin administration.
In response to the vocal outcry over wind projects in places like Lowell and Sheffield, Shumlin this fall created a five-person energy-siting commission to check concerns over the regulatory process.
“There are going to be problems with every form of energy. It’s only a matter of time, for instance, before larger solar farms have issues people are going to be concerned about,” Recchia says.
“But we’ve got a process in place, both through the Public Service Board and the siting commission to try to better reflect the issues people are concerned about,” he says.
Benning says the existing regulatory mechanisms are too deeply flawed to be relied upon to prevent inappropriate wind projects. In addition to the moratorium, Benning’s legislation would change the criteria under which wind projects are judged – moving them from the purview of Act 248 to Act 250.
One key difference between the two regulatory mechanisms is that Act 248 allows for a greater measure of adverse environmental and aesthetic impacts so long as the project is in the “public good.”
“When Gov. Deane Davis signed (Act 250), he did so in part because he was horrified by what he saw happening to our mountains with the ski industry, and developers from down-country trying to put in developments and condos,” Benning says. “He wrote the law with the intent of saving our most cherished resources from that kind of rampant development, and he’s no doubt rolling over in his grave over what’s happening with wind.”
Placing wind projects under the purview of Act 250 may have wider support than the moratorium – Klein will introduce a bill that would require major wind projects proposed by private developers to go through the Act 250 process.
The money at stake in the renewable energy business guarantees that the debate over the moratorium will be followed closely by industry lobbyists and by Shumlin, who views their investments in this state a key component of the new green-energy economy.
David Blittersdorf, a renewable energy developer whose first wind project, a 10-megawatt facility on Georgia Mountain, will be fully operational by the New Year, says Vermont can help solve the climate crisis, and generate jobs and prosperity for its residents doing it.
Opponents’ attacks against the out-of-state corporate interests often bankrolling projects, Blittersdorf says, miss the point.
“I find it very promising actually that people not from this state are willing to invest in clean energy in Vermont, that for once we can be the source of an incredibly valuable resource, and ensure it’s done in an environmentally responsible way,” he says. “But if you put a moratorium in place, you’re killing all that capital that’s going to come here and benefit this state.”