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Renewable energy showcase targeted by wind turbine protesters; State Rep. ‘really troubled by the tone of things’

Nearly 500 attendees jammed Vermont’s annual conference Thursday showcasing the virtues of renewable energy, an industry growing rapidly here.

Five percent of all Vermonters now hold a job tied to renewables, like wind, solar, hydro and biomass, or in companies involved in energy efficiency.

Yet large-scale wind development remains highly controversial, especially in communities that host the turbines.

Two new projects are proposed in Swanton and Irasburg. Other commercial projects are online in Georgia, Searsburg, Sheffield and Lowell.

A group of Franklin County residents who showed up Thursday at the conference said they’re determined to block the Swanton turbines. At 500 feet in height they’d be the largest ever proposed in Vermont and closer to existing neighborhoods.

Christina Lang,of Swanton, said her home would be 2,000 feet from the turbine blades which she said “would make noise constantly.”

“We’re sad, and we’re hurt, and yes, we are upset that this has been going on so long,” added Sally Collopy, of Fairfield. “Nobody listens, and nobody cares and we’re fed up with it. We’re fed up.”

State leaders say Vermont must move quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions tied to climate change, and the Legislature has established a goal of having Vermont get 90 percent of all its energy from renewables by 2050.

Protesters complain bitterly that developers, and regulators at the Vermont Public Service Boards use that goal as their rationale to approve most projects, no matter what those most impacted have to say.

That’s inaccurate criticism, says Gabrielle Stebbins, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont.

“The process is fair,” Stebbins said. “I understand that there are people who don’t want to look at these things, it hurts them emotionally and makes them angry. I understand that. But the science is not supporting many of the claims that are stated. And the facts in terms of the PSB process is that projects are denied or are required to do extensive mitigation.”

Stebbins agrees, however, the quasi-judicial board rules are “very legal and so it is difficult for the average Vermonter to participate.”

Rep. Tony Klein of East Montpelier, a Democrat who chairs the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was another target of demonstrators who believe lobbyists hired by industry interests usually get what they want from Montpelier.

Klein counters that his committee is bi-partisan and often produces unanimous votes on energy legislation. The lawmaker said he is asking the PSB “to be more sensitive, and utilize the tools they have and from a personal point of view, stop saying ‘we’re only doing what the Legislature tells (us) what to do,’ because that’s not quite correct.”

Klein said the anger and division over siting of industrial-scale wind projects in Vermont must somehow be resolved in a ‘sane, humanly’ manner.

A leading Vermont wind developers declined to discuss the issue. He said he did not want to exacerbate rhetoric coming from the opposition he already thinks is “scary.”

“We need to be respectful of each other,” Klein said. “I mean, I don’t want crazy things to start happening here.”

Former State Sen. Randy Brock of Swanton, a GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, wandered over to the group of protesters outside the Sheraton Hotel to offer support.

“The people in my community feel this may be forced on them,” Brock said. “They don’t have anybody who is listening to what they have to say.”

Last spring state lawmakers did amend the rules for locating industrial-scale solar projects in Vermont. Now, host towns will automatically have party status before the PSB and can require screening and minimum setbacks from roads.