Wind power splits small towns, may tip tight gubernatorial race
Credit: George Cahlink, E&E News reporter | Published: Monday, November 7, 2016 | www.eenews.net ~~
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GRAFTON, Vt. – Even before Halloween, the first snow flurries were already falling in this hamlet that’s often described as drawn from a Currier & Ives print.
Outside, the Grafton Village Store, where tourists can buy maple syrup-flavored beef jerky and residents swap gossip, an older man sat on a front-porch bench sipping steaming coffee.
When asked about tomorrow’s local referendum for building 24 wind turbines on ridgelines in Grafton and a neighboring town, Windham, he said the falling flakes were not the only thing creating a chill in these southern Vermont communities.
“People are afraid,” said the Grafton resident, who opposes the project and declined to give his name.
Indeed, fear is driving voters.
Environmentally minded residents who moved here for the region’s bucolic beauty worry the turbines will destroy the area’s pristine ridge. Opponents say the Spanish developer, Iberdrola Renewables, is trying to buy them off with promises of millions of dollars in payments over the next two decades to the towns and their full-time residents.
But backers fret the towns will pass on a unique chance to shore up local finances and also lower their own tax bills. They also say wind power is a must if the state is to meet one of the nation’s broadest mandates for shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
Voters will decide on a ballot, where they’ll also select the next president and governor, whether they support having the massive windmills spread along 5,000 acres of mountaintop wilderness. It would be the Green Mountain State’s most ambitious wind project yet.
Neither side is certain of the outcome – polling here is as scarce as palm trees.
A local fight
Frank Seawright looks out across his 60 acres of pastures and rolling hills of maples, elms and birches atop a 3,000-foot mountain where he lives in a remote house and worries.
He moved his family to Windham more than a decade ago for its rural character, but that ridge a mile or so away could be home to several of the proposed turbines. They’d stand about 500-feet tall and turn whenever the wind’s blowing in the right direction, providing power for as many as 42,000 homes per year.
“There is no way it’s not going to do an enormous amount of destruction,” said Seawright, who serves as chairman of the town’s board of selectmen.
Seawright hikes the terrain regularly and recently counted more than 100 bears’ nests in trees that he believes could come down to build the turbines and access roads. He also warns the development would make Grafton more prone to flooding as the area’s streams would be rerouted.
Seawright, who believes in climate change, said his opposition is rooted in concerns over the environmental impact, not a change in his view or the sound of the turbines. He concedes, though, that he and other property owners worry it could depress property values.
Nancy Tips, Seawright’s wife, who has led a PR campaign against the project, is blunt. “If this project could stand on its own, they would not have to resort to buying voters,” she said.
Iberdrola, which sought the nonbinding referendum after local opposition sprung up, is offering the two communities cash incentives to go along. The developer has said it will walk away if a majority of voters don’t support it. The project would still need a final signoff from the state.
The developer’s proposal would give Windham’s 311 registered voters $1,125 per year, a total of more than $28,000, over the next 25 years, and Grafton’s 504 registered voters would receive $427 a year, a total of more than $10,000 over 25 years.
Additionally, the developer is promising hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax payments and scholarships to both towns.
Windham would benefit more because 16 of the proposed turbines would be built within its boundaries.
Grafton Selectman Skip Lisle said the offer is nothing more than an attempt by the developer “to manipulate our government.” The state, however, has ruled the developer’s offer is legal.
Lisle worries that the town’s tax base, which is 60 percent second homeowners from places like New York and Massachusetts, will erode if the turbines come and property values plunge. He added its economy, based almost entirely on tourism, will suffer.
Don Dougall, a Grafton residents who supports the project, said, “Why wouldn’t you? Here is this tiny community offered a chance over 20 years to have economic stability.”
Dougall calls opponents “alarmists” who are looking to protect their views and says the turbines won’t even be visible or heard from the village. He says Vermont has big goals to fight climate change and every town, including Grafton, needs to do its part.
Backers, like Dougall, may not be as visible around town, where signs opposing the wind development are all over the village – and those supporting it are harder to find.
Wind advocates are backed by many of the state’s larger environmental groups.
“We have good wind resources, so we should be using them,” said Paul Burns, the executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “We should not be taking any renewable energy sources we have off the board here.”
In Grafton, just down the street from the country store, a red-wooden storefront that has been a post office and more recently home to the historical society has been turned over to the Grafton Woodlands Group, a conservation group formed to fight the wind project. Facts sometimes mix with more dubious claims here.
Its walls have exaggerated, ominous photo reproductions of windmills looming over the town. Warnings are given about the health impacts of wind turbines that the state says don’t exist.
But other arguments do stand scrutiny – Vermont already has the nation’s lowest carbon emissions, and the power from the turbines would be largely sent out of state.
Anna Vesely Pilette, the group’s director, can tick off plenty of reasons to oppose the project, but she already worries about the damage that has occurred in a town where the most heated local political arguments are typically over whether it needs a new fire truck.
“It’s terrible to have this kind of discourse in a small town,” she said.
A statewide impact
What’s at stake, though, could have impacts far beyond these tiny towns.
The wind fight could affect the competitive, open-seat gubernatorial race to replace outgoing, three-term, Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott (R) opposes the project over potential community impacts, while his opponent, former state Transportation Secretary Sue Minter (D) has supported it as part of the state’s broader goals to have 90 percent of its power come from renewable sources by 2050.
“Ridgeline development is really tearing Vermont apart, it’s tearing apart our social fabric and our communities, and I believe there are other means of accomplishing the goal,” Scott told E&E News in a recent interview.
Scott cited solar power and other emerging technologies as the way the state will meet its ambitious mark for renewables. He said if wind power were the only option, he’d back it.
Minter, who declined to be interviewed, supports the project in Windham and Grafton and has been a major backer of wind power as a renewable source. Minter emerged from a crowded Democratic primary field this summer, after one of her opponents, Matt Dunne, a state senator, came out late against large-scale wind developments and many greens dropped their support for him.
Scott has campaigned in Grafton, a usually Democratic town, and it’s impossible to miss his signs paired with anti-wind placards on properties in both towns. Minter’s primary opponent Dunne won handily in both towns.
“I know they are very supportive of me, and it’s going to be a tight election, so every vote counts,” said Scott when asked how the local referenda could affect his statewide race.
Lauren Hierl, who runs a pro-environment super PAC for Vermont Conservation Voters, said the wind issue tilted the primary toward Minter, and she said it could have a similar impact in her race against Scott. She said wind offers the “starkest contrast” between the two gubernatorial candidates on green issues.
Hierl, whose group has endorsed Minter for her “strong” clean energy agenda, said the PAC has already spent $120,000 on the race citing her differences with Scott on the environment.
Vermont has been a leader among states in relying on renewables; it ranks third in the nation in their use. In six years under Shumlin, wind power has increased 25-fold, 17,000 clean energy jobs have been created and the state has the second lowest electricity rates in New England.
The Vermont Public Interest Research Group’s Burns said there has been a “very vocal minority” of opponents as renewable use has grown. But, he said, polling shows as many as 4 out of 5 Vermonters support wind power, and opposition mostly springs from property owners in towns where turbines are proposed.
“It’s a ‘not in my town’ kind of thing,” he said.
One of the state’s chief wind opponents, Annette Smith, director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said wind sites in the state do little to help save energy, while using too much to be built and then shipping most of what is generated out of state.
Smith said the growth of wind in Vermont, where four other sites already exist and several others are in the works, has been fueled by renewable companies that donate generously to Democrats. She said both federal and state wind tax credits and other breaks make wind an attractive investment for those firms.
Smith said a defeat in the referendum could help curb some momentum in the state for more wind sites. But she won’t predict the outcome either way.
“I wouldn’t be willing to wager on it,” she said.
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