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Supporters of renewable energy, and in particular Vermont renewable energy projects, are sounding the alarm about S.30, a bill they say would make it more difficult for renewable energy projects to make it through the regulatory process.
This bill has been altered from its original form, to remove a three-year moratorium on new large-scale wind development. It would add an element of local control to the permitting process for wind and other energy projects. The bill’s opponents say that even in its current incarnation it would hinder efforts to put more solar, wind and other renewable energy in place, and thus cut jobs in the nascent Vermont renewable energy industry.
Furthermore, they say, the large-scale wind projects proposed or in the development process in more than a dozen locations in Vermont are crucial to the fight against global warming. If wind projects are voted down in Vermont, they say, it will send a terrible message to the nation as a whole.
Their perspective does not tell the whole story. The complete story is also about the age-old tension between state control and local control, and taps into Vermonters’ historic respect for and conservation of the land. Casting major wind projects in Vermont as a symbolic stake in the heart of global warming is useful to stir up debate, but does little to accomplish the ultimate goal: reducing the world’s carbon emissions to slow or stop the threat of climate change.
On a global scale, Vermont is a tiny mote of dust. Any practical impact we have in terms of reducing carbon emissions is miniscule. But our symbolic impact (see: civil unions) can far outweigh this.
Vermont is positioned to have that impact, but the emphasis on massive, industrial-scale projects does not ring true to our history or our sensibility.
Currently, energy projects like the Lowell Mountain industrial wind project, the Winstanley biomass plant proposed for North Springfield (and a comparable one proposed for Fair Haven), or a small hydroelectric dam proposed for Bennington County have to go before the Public Service Board for a certificate of public good.
This requirement was created by the Legislature in 1988, under Section 248. This was done for several reasons: to consolidate environmental and financial regulation of utilities, to put decisions about power generation in the hands of experts, and (perhaps most importantly) to give the state veto power over local concerns in siting electric generation facilities.
That state’s power over local concerns has been crucial in many aspects of Vermont’s environmental heritage. Under governors Phil Hoff and Deane Davis, Vermont began to
truly implement and exercise comprehensive statewide policies relating to the environment and development (Gov. George Aiken, who instituted rural electric cooperatives, was a limited precursor).
It was Davis who initiated “Green Up Day” and the drive for statewide development permitting that eventually became Act 250. Despite complaints about the byzantine Act 250 process that continue today, the law has played a crucial role in protecting Vermont’s landscape from untrammeled development. Soon after that, Vermont passed the “bottle bill” to motivate recycling, and in the years since, further laws have strengthened protections for water quality, air quality and wildlife.
Most, if not all of these protections work sensibly to balance the desire to do what we want in our own back yard with the community interest in a clean and safe environment, and keep development – be it condos, malls, or industrial parks – from irrevocably changing Vermont for the worse.
The economic burden of these laws is that they slow development and they are a drag on rapid business growth. We all bear that burden together, as we all share in the environmental benefit together.
The worry for small communities who have been selected for large-scale wind projects is that in the quest for a greater good – slowing or reversing climate change – they will have to irrevocably change their community for the worse. Most, if not all, of the people in Ira, Grafton or Georgia who have so stridently opposed wind projects in Vermont are actually very supportive of renewable energy. They just worry that their small corner of the world is being asked to bear a burden – through alteration of the landscape and other impacts – that is not shared equally throughout the state. They also worry that the stated benefit – reversing climate change – could be better achieved through other means.
Electricity generation accounts for just 5 percent of Vermont’s carbon emissions. By comparison, transportation makes up 44 percent, and heating 31 percent. Our money and our efforts would be better spent on reducing those elements of our carbon emissions, if our goal is to be more than symbolic. Vermont must do its part. But if we are true to our heritage, we will do it sensibly, frugally and for the most impact possible given our small size.
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