When it comes to Vermont’s energy future, there’s more than one bottom line, Burke resident Mark Whitworth contends.
Try factoring in wildlife habitat, jobs, climate and our firmly entrenched consumer culture, the executive director of nonprofit Energize Vermont said.
Summed up, those variables yield sharper, more useful questions, Whitworth told the Burlington Free Press recently.
How about answers? He has a few.
For instance: A benchmark for any renewable-energy undertaking in Vermont is whether it “destroys a natural ecosystem.”
The recently canceled Seneca Mountain Wind project proposed for his neck of the Northeast Kingdom failed that test, Whitworth said.
“In the kingdom we have three industrial parks that were set up by the economic-development association,” he added. “In our opinion, that’s where industrial development belongs.”
Industrial-scale wind projects such as those built at Lowell, Sheffield and on Georgia Mountain have been deemed by supporters as acceptable tradeoffs to fragmented wildlife habitat.
Whitworth disagrees: “We have so few intact ecosystems remaining, even in Vermont, that it’s our duty to preserve them.”
And then there’s wind’s bottom line.
“I’m not pro- or con-wind,” he said. “Wind has not shown itself to be economically viable in Vermont – and that goes from small wind up to industrial-sized wind.”
Wind or sun
That view flies in the face of the state’s most recent comprehensive energy plan, prepared in 2011, which anticipates “significant” growth in wind power – along with improved scrutiny of environmental and aesthetic impacts.
And, despite Vermont’s modest potential for industrial wind compared with other parts of the country, the financial community has continued to make investments, said Martha Staskus, a key consultant in the development of Georgia Mountain Wind.
Georgia Mountain’s power, delivered exclusively to Burlington, has benefited consumers, too, said Ken Nolan, manager of power resources for Burlington Electric Department.
For the past 20 months, those turbines have delivered power at efficiencies comparable with national standards, Nolan wrote in an email to the Burlington Free Press, adding that he is “extremely pleased” with the performance of all the wind facilities in BED’s portfolio.
Whitworth doesn’t buy it. He’d rather talk solar.
“Let’s talk about scaling things down. As solar cells become more efficient, we can scale down solar so we make use of only previously disturbed land,” Whitworth said.
“It’s not possible to scale down industrial wind turbines. If anything, they’re going to get bigger, because that’s the only way the economics improve,” he added.
Might the dissolution of Seneca Mountain Wind indicate a growing counter-current against bigger, better turbines?
“I think we’re making progress,” Whitworth said. “I think renewables on an industrial scale were thought of as an unmitigated good. And I think more and more people are starting to question that.
“They’re asking if there are places in Vermont where industrial wind turbines don’t belong,” he continued. “And the next question is: Are there statutory protections for those places? And I don’t think there are.”
The conversation moved toward another contentious issue: the pipeline project that aims to extend natural-gas service south from Chittenden County to Middlebury, to Ticonderoga, N.Y., and finally, to Rutland.
Proponents of the pipeline include large portions of Addison and Rutland counties’ planning and economic communities. Natural gas is a relatively clean-burning fossil fuel, and cheaper than heating fuel or propane.
Opponents want to reduce Vermont’s dependence on fuels that contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions. Furthermore, they argue that fracking – hydraulic fracturing – used in extraction (outlawed in Vermont, but not in natural-gas-producing states or provinces) poses risks to groundwater.
Whitworth waded into the controversy with a half dozen questions:
• Is natural gas a reasonable “bridge fuel’ for the near-term (until renewable energy sources step up production)?
• Is fracking an appropriate way to produce natural gas?
• If natural gas is a reasonable bridge strategy and can be produced safely, should it be delivered in a pipeline?
• Do regional plans and town plans have enough weight so that a town can impede a pipeline because it interferes with orderly development?
• How can economic progress – almost certain to accompany the pipeline – be weighed against the contribution of natural gas to rapid climate change?
• “So is there a net gain or a net loss?” Whitworth asked, finally. “I don’t know the answer to that. These questions are still questions.”
Surely he might offer some unassailable guidelines.
“I don’t think our lifestyles are sustainable. I think we have to make significant and deliberate changes in the way we live, and I think we can do it and not be unhappy about it,” Whitworth said. “But people might not care that some crank from the Northeast Kingdom thinks about that.
Any other advice?
“No,” Whitworth concluded. “I’m not that smart.”
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