Windham has watched large-scale wind projects damage the ridge lines, woodlands and watersheds of affected towns and with them, in some cases, the very precious sense of community of the towns themselves. In other cases, neighboring towns have been set against each other when one sees only hosting payments and the other sees extreme threats to their environment, heritage and physical and financial well-being. When the essence of mountain communities is permanently altered, with too little input from those most directly affected, many of their residents are left angry and feeling injured.
Traditionally the construction of new power generation capacity was a result of the planning by regulated utilities to provide needed amounts of power: reliably and affordably. Utilities had to prove the need for the project and defend its economics. What makes things so different and so challenging today is that now the development of new generation is primarily a site-driven process most often initiated by private, non-utility interests and fueled by extravagant tax and financial incentives. In essence a single landowner with a good location in partnership with a developer with deep pockets can change the natural and social landscape of an entire region almost overnight.
Section 248 abridged some of the authority granted to towns in Act 250 in order to insure that the increasing demand could be met in a timely way. But the authors of Section 248 never contemplated the emergence of merchant power and the speculative development of renewable energy sources. As a consequence the regulatory tools 248 contains are inadequate for today’s challenges. Today electricity is a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.
The public now sees itself cast as a largely impotent, third party observer to a dialogue between developers and regulators.
To further complicate matters our current energy plans and goals rest on the assumption that all renewable energy is good simply because it is renewable. There is mounting evidence, however, that the drivers in this viewpoint are political and financial rather than environmental.
Although the money and the politics are kept well behind a veneer of talk about environmental benefits, we are ignoring two central questions about renewables: Will they reduce our carbon emissions? And, are they the most cost-effective way to deliver clean energy to consumers? To enrich a few landowners and developers at the expense of ratepayers, our heritage, our ecology, our headwaters, our quiet nights and dark skies is a highly questionable interpretation of “the public good.” Especially when we consider that, at least in the case of industrial scale wind in Vermont, the performance has not approached the promises.
A principal instrument of protection for our environment, our community values and our democracy is the town plan. A town plan is a social contract among the members of a community. The purpose of the plan is to set out an agreed-upon vision for the future land use within the context of a town’s history, setting, resources and community values. That agreement is clearly established so that no single member of the community, whether resident or absentee owner, can distort, destroy or dominate the intent or execution of that shared vision through inappropriate land use. The planning commissions across the state spend an average of two intensive years of volunteer time in a process that is highly democratic and has contributed enormously to the character of Vermont and all that we can be proud of. The protection of valuable lands and the preservation of our natural and cultural heritage are the concerns that are at the heart of town plans, and so their importance cannot be overstated. Town plans should be of special concern in siting decisions and consequently have an elevated status in the Public Service process.
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Mary Boyer, who is a member of the Windham Select Board. This is an abridged version of her comments to the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy on April 8, 2015.
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