SEARSBURG, Vt. – It was a private ceremony held on private property, for a public project being built on public land. And when members of the public showed, they were barred from entering by public employees.
Welcome to “clean” energy in Vermont.
Three state troopers guarded the entrance to the Monday morning ground-breaking ceremony of the Deerfield Wind Project, a 30-megawatt 15-turbine installation being built by Spanish developer Iberdrola on U.S. Forest Service land in the Green Mountain National Forest.
Gov. Peter Shumlin was there, on the inside, as were more than 50 protesters, on the outside. Even state Rep. Marriana Gamache, R-Swanton, who is on the House Energy Committee, was denied entry.
Iberdrola (known as Avangrid in the U.S.) has a 25-year purchase agreement with Green Mountain Power. Vermont utilities are required to get at least 15 percent of their power from renewable sources, regardless of the cost.
The Deerfield turbines, each just under 500 feet tall, will be the first-in-the-nation utility-scale wind farm on U.S. Forest land.
“This is going to be in a remote location, far from load where there aren’t customers to serve,” said Annette Smith, president of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, who was among the protesters. She was dressed in a bat costume to highlight the killing of bats and birds by large turbines. “It is a measly 30 megawatt project which with wind means it’s really only 10 megawatts in terms of actual production.”
Smith said the project will destroy two ridge lines, one of which is within a mile and a half of the George D. Aiken Wilderness, which will likely be subject to noise pollution.
John Brabant, a member of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, noted that 20 years ago when the local Sugar Bush Ski Resort applied for an Act 250 permit, the Agency of Natural Resources enforced strong restrictions on the project.
“The old ANR used to take this very seriously, they wouldn’t even allow ski trails to go through this area that was bear denning and breeding habitat for fear that just the mere passage of skiers would wake the denning bears. Yet they are going to allow these blasts throughout the winter,” he said.
Smith said they saw heavy equipment heading toward the soon-to-be construction site to begin clearing the forest.
“This is the time when the bears start feeding up there in the fall and they go denning up there, so they can kiss their happy home goodbye, they are losing their cafeteria and their bedroom,” she said.
Brabant reflected that decades ago many of those now supporting industrial wind projects would have been on the outside, with the protesters, rather than the inside, with the developers.
“These environmental groups 20 years ago would have fought tooth and nail to stop what’s going on,” said Brabant. “Now they are not only not fighting, they are supporting, openly, unabashedly (the projects).”
At the ceremony, Shumlin touted his aggressive approach to industrial wind and solar projects.
“I am proud that since I took office we have increased solar by 11 times and wind generation by 20 times, and that we now have over 17,000 Vermonters working in clean energy jobs,” he said.
Other voices from inside the event expressed nothing but enthusiasm for the project. A representative from the neighboring town of Readsboro, which is supposed to collect $150,000 per year in revenue from the project, heaped praise on wind power, as did an official from the Forest Service.
“It was a party for the club and I guess there was some ceremony and they had food or something afterwards,” said Brabant. “We couldn’t see it. We were down the road away from where it all went down.”