SOUTH BURLINGTON – Inside the Emerald Ballroom, advocates of Vermont’s quickening embrace of renewable energy delivered round after round of applause.
Outside the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center in South Burlington, a couple dozen protesters sounded a more cautionary note: Large-scale wind is a poor match for Vermont, they said.
Is the Green Mountain State’s environmental community so deeply polarized?
“This is not an easy transition,” acknowledged Gabrielle Stebbins, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, the trade group that hosted the two-day conference.
But, Stebbins added in her opening remarks to hundreds of attendees, the state’s “energy revolution” is picking up speed, investment and credibility.
That momentum will very likely include the ridge-top development of more large-scale wind projects, she said.
Jeff Forward, REV’s board chairman, agreed.
Big wind farms, Forward said, play a critical role in a society that is working overtime to keep fossil fuels unburned, in the ground.
“We need it to get there. It’s existential,” he continued.
“What’s our energy future going to look like? That’s a good question,” Forward added. “There’s a very good chance it’s going to take time to get used to it. Change is hard.”
Many, but not all of the people inside the conference agreed.
Jason Day of East Dorset-based Star Wind Turbines, said his farm-scale rigs will be considerably quieter, cheaper, habitat-friendly and less obtrusive than the utility-sized towers that draw the ire of demonstrators.
About 11 o’clock, Day strode outside the exhibit hall to have a word with the protesters.
“Wind power is an opportunity in Vermont, and it’s going to happen,” he said as he circled the Sheraton compound. “I just want to make sure the average person can participate.”
But the demonstrators had gone.
Earlier, the group on Williston Road had waved signs reading “ridgelines are not renewable,” “stop destroying Vermont,” “no wind turbines” and “save the ridge.”
One sign-holder, Fred Parks of Essex Junction, owns a summer camp at Fairfield Pond.
A proposed generating facility west of the pond – and within easy view of its residents – was the focus of Parks’ and several others’ grievance.
“There’s been no local input, no local vote,” Parks said about the proposed development by Swanton Wind LLC to develop up to seven, 500-feet tall turbines several miles east of St. Albans.
Similarly, Sally Collopy of Fairfield said the local community – by and large supportive of small-scale renewable energy – risked being victims of a too-quick, government-led charge to scale-up renewables.
It turns out a government representative was discussing that very issue, inside. Darren Springer, Governor Peter Shumlin’s chief of staff, told the crowd that the state’s role is to “bridge the gap” between renewable energy projects and communities.
Subsidies to energy industries are nothing new, Springer said: The oil industry has benefited from guaranteed tax breaks since 1913.
Public subsidies of renewable energy programs have been intermittent and hard won – and only now are beginning to level the playing field, he added.
“Because this is not an industry that can fail,” Springer said.
Springer also touched on the delicate issue of whose backyard gets the view of turbines or a solar array: New regulations now guarantee towns “party-status” in Public Service Board deliberations about where solar, wind, biomass or hydro plants are sited, he said.
“Sometimes the proceedings don’t work the way a developer wants them to,” Springer said. “That’s okay. We have to make sure the revolution is accessible to everyone.”
“We have to make the revolution accessible to everyone.”
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