Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders in December introduced a sweeping renewable-energy plan that would, among other things, require tens of thousands of new wind turbines. Sen. Sanders’s “people before polluters” proposal may help rally his followers, but it won’t be so well received in rural America, where resistance to wind farms has been building. Nowhere is the backlash stronger than in Mr. Sanders’s state.
On Jan. 5, Vermont state Sens. John S. Rodgers and Robert Starr, both Democrats, introduced a bill (S. 210) that would ban wind projects above 500 kilowatts (an average industrial wind turbine has a capacity of 1.5 megawatts or more). Twenty-four co-sponsors filed an identical bill in Vermont’s lower chamber on Jan. 20.
Mr. Rodgers called the growing resistance to wind projects “a rebellion” at a news conference in Montpelier, the state capital. “I know of no place in the state where we can place industrial wind turbines without creating an unacceptable level of damage to our environment and our people.”
Wind-generated electricity in the U.S. has more than tripled since 2008, but opposition to the gigantic turbines, which can stand more than 500 feet, has been growing. In Vermont several protesters were arrested in 2011 and 2012 while trying to stop work on a wind project built on top of Lowell Mountain.
In March 2015 the Northeastern Vermont Development Association, a regional planning commission that covers 21% of the state’s land area, voted unanimously in favor of a resolution that said “no further development of industrial-scale wind turbines should take place in the Northeast Kingdom.”
In October residents of Irasburg overwhelmingly voted down, 274-9, a proposed five-megawatt wind project near their town. In November residents of Swanton met to consider a seven-turbine wind project proposed to be built atop nearby Rocky Ridge. The tally: 731 votes against, 160 in favor. And in December the town select board in Fairfield, a few miles southeast of Swanton, declared its opposition to the same project.
Mr. Sanders’s target is for the U.S. to get 80% of its energy from renewables by 2050. The plan calls for 25% of Vermont’s energy needs to be produced from wind—a giant expansion. In 2014, according to the American Wind Energy Association, Vermont’s 119 megawatts of installed turbine capacity generated about 4% of the electricity produced in the state.
Vermont’s bill appears to be the first effort by state legislators to outright ban large wind projects, but dozens of governmental entities have rejected or restricted such developments over the past year. In May 2015 commissioners in Stark County, N.D., rejected a $250 million wind project being pushed by Florida-based NextEra Energy, America’s biggest wind-energy producer.
In July the town board of Somerset, N.Y., voted to oppose a proposed 200-megawatt project known as Lighthouse Wind. And the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a ban on large wind turbines in the county’s unincorporated areas.
“Wind turbines create visual blight,” said Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich. Skyscraper-size turbines, he added, would “contradict the county’s rural dark skies ordinance which aims to protect dark skies in areas like Antelope Valley and the Santa Monica Mountains.”
In Iowa, a three-turbine wind project pushed by a company called Optimum Renewables has been rejected by three different counties, most recently in August by the Black Hawk County Board of Adjustment, after more than 100 local residents expressed concerns.
And in December Maine’s Partnership for the Preservation of the Downeast Lakes Watershed, a tiny group that had been fighting a $100 million, 40-megawatt project known as Bowers Wind, prevailed when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld a ruling by the state’s Board of Environmental Protection, which had previously rejected the project.
Why are so many Vermonters opposed to wind energy? The Sanders presidential campaign did not respond to questions. But Sen. Rodgers told me by email that the state must protect its tourism industry. “People come here from around the world for our scenic vistas and rural working landscape.” Asked whether concerns about climate change should trump the concerns of rural communities, Mr. Rodgers was frank: “Destroying the natural environment in the name of climate change is moronic.”
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