November 17, 2016
Opinions, Vermont

Peter Galbraith: A slowdown ahead for wind projects

By Peter W. Galbraith | Nov. 16, 2016 |

Some of the biggest winners of Vermont’s election didn’t know that one had taken place. Thanks to votes in Windham and Grafton and the election of Phil Scott as governor, the creatures that depend on Vermont’s ridgelines are now more secure.

Windham and Grafton voters overwhelmingly rejected what would have been Vermont’s largest wind project. They did so in spite of payments promised to voters that many considered bribes. Voters in Windham turned down $1,162 per year per person ($69,720 for a married couple over the 30-year life of the project) in order to protect their ridgeline. Grafton voters also turned down cash payments, although those offered Grafton were not as generous. The Grafton-Windham vote is a harbinger of how future projects of this scale will be received in the state.

At the same time, Vermont elected a governor who promises to use all the powers of his office to stop new ridgeline wind projects in the state. When I asked Phil Scott about this on the campaign trail, he said that he would, if necessary, suspend permits issued for wind projects. But it may not be necessary. The governor appoints the Public Service Board and he can protect our ridgelines by appointing board members who share his concern for preserving Vermont’s most pristine ecosystems.

If the elections were a win for Vermont’s ridgeline ecosystems, it was blow to the wind industry and to its numerous lobbyists and advocates. The advocates argue that the wind projects are necessary if Vermont is to do its part in combatting global warming. People have long known that the projects are not welcome in the communities where they are proposed but this election highlighted – for the first time – the ecological effects.

As the planet warms, species need to migrate to cooler places, which are higher elevations. By destroying mountaintops, industrial scale wind projects harm the ability of Vermont species to adapt to climate change.

It may be, as VPIRG argues, that most Vermonters still favor industrial wind projects. But the opponents vote on the issue. Many progressive Vermonters – including supporters of the liberal economic agenda that I put forward as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor – crossed over to support Phil Scott in the general election. While Phil Scott’s margin over Sue Minter is too large to attribute to any one factor, the pro-ridgeline vote almost certainly made the difference between Phil Scott winning an outright majority and the election going to the Democratic controlled Legislature.

And clearly the tide of public opinion is turning against ridgeline wind. Until this year, most of the opposition focused on the consequences for humans – noise, aesthetics and lost property values. It was easy for Vermonters in more populated areas to support wind projects when the affected communities were far away. But almost all Vermonters are environmentalists. Thanks to a robust campaign, voters increasingly understand that the projects do nothing to reduce our carbon footprint (especially since out-of-state industries use the renewable energy credits generated by Vermont wind projects to burn fossil fuels) but do increase the damage global warming does to Vermont fauna and flora.

Vermont’s advocates for industrial wind are genuinely concerned about the future of our planet. But some of the loudest voices – including VPIRG – pursued the cause with zealotry that many Vermonters find off-putting. Vermonters who want to protect mountaintop ecosystems are no less concerned about the environment. We simply have different views as to the best policies for accomplishing this.

In the course of the debate over the Stiles Brook project, the local senator told the voters of Grafton and Windham that “someone has to be sacrificed” in order for Vermont to address climate change. As the elections demonstrated, this is a not a productive approach. If Vermont is to move forward on renewable energy, we needs reasoned debate, respect for opposing concerns and consensus. Lowering the temperature of our political discourse should help us address rising temperatures in Vermont.

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