On Monday, Jan. 13, landowners in the Unified Towns and Gores of Essex County – the UTG – joined 11 other Vermont towns opposing industrial wind projects. This occurred even with the project developer’s promise of a $900/year direct payment to each landowner – in addition to a hefty annual payment to the UTG of $600,000 for 20 years. There is, however, a significant difference between this vote and others: it was a vote by property owners in the UTG, not registered voters. There are, some say, as many as 457 property owners in the UTG; registered voters number 40.
Project developer Eolian/Seneca Wind initially proposed a 31-industrial wind turbine (IWT) project located in the towns of Brighton, Newark and Ferdinand on 9,000 acres of private land, most of which are owned by a New Hampshire resident. Brighton and Newark voters strongly objected to this proposal, leading to Seneca Wind’s alternative plan for 20 IWTs sited exclusively in Ferdinand, one of the six UTG. Since the UTG are governed collectively, the Governing Board decided to poll UTG landowners to find out whether or not they supported the project. Ballots were sent to 399 landowners, throughout the UTG and 278 were returned completed. The result? 171 against the project, 107 in favor.
Town votes have no standing in the Section 248 process in which the Public Service Board issues or denies a certificate of public good (CPG) for energy and telecommunications projects. Wind developers, however, have made much of communities or groups that support a project, currently three of 14 (See Table 1.). Those opposing wind development in their communities have carried the 11 other town votes. There are also towns where the local governing bodies took a negative position or the town plan prohibits industrial wind (See Tables 2 and 3.). Keep in mind that none of this matters legally except possibly where towns have used a formal planning process to discourage or prohibit IWTs.
Gov. Shumlin, in referencing the so-called Seneca Wind project, has said publicly that he thinks the voters there have a right to reject the project. He also thinks “it won’t be built.” Rep. Tony Klein, chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee and a supporter of renewable energy development, seems to agree. However, neither the governor nor Rep. Klein matter, legally, in this issue. The real maestro of the Section 248 process is Public Service Board Chair James Volz, who continues to say, in effect, that “The Legislature has told us to approve these projects if they meet current standards. If anyone has problems with this process, the place to address it is in the Legislature.”
But Vermont’s three operating IWT projects – Sheffield, Lowell and Georgia Mountain – are hardly role models for investment in so-called renewable generation. Transmission and grid management problems, such as “curtailment” (dumping electricity), chronic and acute noise issues, the disturbance to wildlife and water flows, and underperforming turbines (which don’t generate the amount of electricity the developers claimed in their CPG application) are raising concerns about the value of this technology in Vermont. The noise issue has risen to such a level that the PSB recently opened an investigation (Docket # 8167) of noise issues for all types of generation.
These are serious problems.
As a Vermonter I find it embarrassing to have our governor spouting simplistic sound bites about converting from fossil fuel to “renewables”: the process is far from simple, nor is it easy to know whether any of these projects reduce the state’s emissions. Following a pattern established by the developers of the Sheffield, Lowell and Georgia Mountain wind projects, the Seneca Mountain Wind developer intended to sell their Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) to southern New England utilities that use fossil fuels to generate power. The purchase of the RECs allows those utilities to continue burning fossil fuels, while meeting Vermont mandates to reduce their carbon emissions. The Vermont Department of Public Service acknowledges that with the sale of the RECs the three operating industrial wind projects are increasing the state’s carbon footprint. This is what happens when politics and profit masquerade as “public good.”
An effective climate change action program requires the reduction of carbon emissions by using less fossil fuel. Building additional IWT-generated electricity under the existing system fails that test. In other words, this is “pretend” climate change action that does nothing to reduce Vermont’s carbon emissions.
Those who oppose industrial wind projects are heroes. While lacking significant financing or political clout, what they have, in abundance and to a person, is a passion for their connection with the soil, water, woods and wildlife of our state. This passion fuels the much needed and more authentic discussion of how the state can implement an effective and coherent climate change action policy.
They have given Vermonters a gift for the future, a pathway to responsible climate stewardship while protecting the state’s landscape. It is straightforward, independent of technological unknowns, and cost-effective: keep our landscape intact while attacking carbon emissions at their source via aggressive weatherization, efficiency, net zero construction and incentives for alternative transportation.
Will our leadership hear that message? Will this administration acknowledge that the industrial wind projects built in Vermont to date have done nothing to reduce carbon emissions? It’s time to stop playing make-believe and implement climate change action that is not only respectful of our landscape and communities, but that is genuinely effective.
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