The coming vote in the small Windham County towns of Windham and Grafton about the placement of wind turbines in their towns ought to concern all Vermonters interested in the integrity of democracy and the continuing development of renewable energy. Till now, wind energy has had an important place in the mix of renewable energy sources in Vermont, but the tactics of the wind developer in Windham County have poisoned the cause.
If voters in Windham and Grafton reject the wind project on Tuesday, they will be sending the message that power companies cannot ride roughshod over Vermont communities or buy the votes they would otherwise be unable to obtain. Vermonters are counting on the voters of the towns to stand up for democracy and say “no” to Iberdrola, the Spanish wind developer.
For several years, the wind developer has been trying to persuade residents of Windham and Grafton that the ridgeline in their towns would be a good site for wind turbines. They planed a wind project that would be the largest in the state. The owners of the forestland portrayed the development as a way for them to continue to continue conscientious sustainable forestry practices without having to sell off the land.
In order to win the confidence of residents, the developers said they would not ram the project through, but would abide be the decision of the voters. Then, it appears, they concluded they were going to lose the vote, because they decided that, in addition to the tax revenue and other payments going to the town, they would provide a payment for each registered voter – if the towns approved the plans. Voters in Windham would get an annual check of $1,162 over 20 years, and voters of Grafton would get a check for $427.
Neither the attorney general nor the secretary of state was able to declare that these payments would constitute a bribe. But Secretary of State Jim Condos said they seemed like a bribe, and that the law should be changed to prevent interference of this kind in the electoral process.
What is lost with money dangling before the eyes of the voters is confidence that a major decision on energy production and the environment will be made in the best interests of the towns and state rather than the self-interest of individual voters. We have deliberative democratic processes because we believe that issues of public interest must be made free of the taint of self-dealing. But when an approving vote comes with a promise of money, the process is corrupted.
Wind power was already becoming a divisive issue in Vermont. Most Vermonters like the idea of wind power in a general way, derived from turbines on mountains at a distance from their homes. And some Vermonters are all right with turbines at a relatively close range. Aesthetically, they have a certain appeal, and they are a clean, green source of energy.
But increasingly, wind projects are meeting opposition from nearby residents who believe that the giant installations are damaging to Vermont’s pristine upland environments and are a damaging source of pollution.
The desperate measures adopted by Iberdrola ought to be a warning to Vermonters about wind developers who are willing to resort to corrupting methods to shove their projects through. An annual payment does not seem like coercion; it is more of an enticement. But when legalized bribery begins to shape the public debate, it tilts the field unfairly, which has the effect of coercion.
It is important for Vermont to pursue its plans for renewable energy, especially solar power, from an economic standpoint and the standpoint of the climate. Renewable energy is a growing sector of the state’s economy, and the development of solar power points the way to an energy future free of fossil fuels.
But Iberdrola has given wind power a bad name, casting a pall over prospects for the industry throughout the state. If this is how wind developers are going to behave, then Vermont should have no part of it. Voters in Windham and Grafton can send that message on Tuesday.
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