Republican Gov. Phil Scott says the next chairman of the Public Service Board will share his opposition to mountaintop wind energy.
Scott has long been a vocal critic of ridgeline wind development, and called for a temporary ban on the installation of utility-scale wind turbines on Vermont mountains during his gubernatorial campaign last year.
Over the past couple of weeks, Scott has been interviewing candidates to replace the outgoing chairman of the Vermont Public Service Board, Jim Volz. Scott says he’s taken the pulse of each candidate on one question in particular.
“Well, I’m asking for their view on ridgeline development,” Scott said at a press conference Wednesday.
The quasi-judicial Public Service Board is a powerful entity – the three-person panel gets to decide which energy projects go forward, and which projects are rejected.
Scott says all of the candidates he’s interviewed share his aversion to mountaintop wind energy.
“I haven’t found anyone that necessarily disagrees with me on that,” he said. “I’m just sensing from what I’ve heard that they’d like to protect the scenic beauty of Vermont and protect its ridgelines.”
Ben Walsh is the director of the climate and energy program at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, an organization that has lobbied heavily in favor of more wind energy.
“If the governor was looking at this as a litmus test and he’s only open to candidates that oppose wind, that would be quite concerning,” Walsh says.
While perhaps not a litmus test, Scott says candidates’ positions on wind have figured into his selection criteria.
“I would say it’s not a major factor, but it certainly plays into my choice,” Scott says.
The pool of candidates Scott has interviewed were forwarded to his office by the state’s Judicial Nominating Board. The names of the candidates are confidential, as per the rules governing the judicial nominating process.
Asked when he’d announce the appointment, Scott said he would announce “him” later this week.
Wind has become a controversial flashpoint in the renewable energy debate in Vermont. Critics say the turbines can mar scenic vistas and compromise high-elevation wildlife habitats. They also say that noise from turbine blades hurts quality of life for neighbors within earshot.
Proponents say wind offers an emission-free alternative to fossil fuels, and that it’s a far more environmentally responsible energy source than coal, natural gas or oil. They say there’s no scientific evidence to show that sound from wind poses health risks to neighboring residents. And they say Vermont will be hard-pressed to meet its statutory goal of 90 percent renewables by the year 2050 without significant new wind energy development.
Walsh says it’s critical that the next chairperson of the Public Service Board not allow their personal views to color their professional judgments.
“The board, just like a judge and jury, is supposed to be impartial,” Walsh says. “They’re supposed to look at the science and the legal record, and certainly that’s what we would expect from any future board chair.”
The future of wind in Vermont may hinge less on the constitution of the board than the new sound standards by which wind energy developers will have to abide. The proposed decibel standards are considerably lower than existing rules allow for. And wind energy proponents, like Walsh, say they’d effectively give Scott the wind moratorium he’s been looking for.
“And frankly, yeah, this would take wind off the table as a meaningful resource,” Walsh says.
Scott says he agrees that that the new standards would make it much harder to develop wind resources in Vermont. But he says that’s precisely why he supports them.
“I think it will help a great deal,” Scott says. “I think we’ll have less industrial wind on our ridgelines.”
Scott says “judicial temperament, being open minded, making sure there’s a means of treating everyone equitably” are the guiding factors in his choice for the position.
VPIRG and other renewable energy advocacy groups will be asking that newly constituted board adopt more permissive decibel limits for future wind projects.