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At clean energy tour, dialogue dominated by wind turbine opponents airing grievances

Pittsfield – It was just three weeks ago that President Trump made his controversial decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord. The president justified his decision by saying that the agreement would hurt economic growth. The move was met with outrage from climate activists, business leaders and even members of the president’s cabinet including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Since then, 11 states including Massachusetts have vowed to meet the standards of the climate accords on their own. It is within this context that state Senate President Pro Tempore Marc R. Pacheco, D-Taunton, the founding chairman of the Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, is taking his Clean Energy Future Tour on the road.

On Monday evening (June 19), inside a small but packed auditorium at Berkshire Community College, Pacheco took the floor. He started with a joke, pointing to newly elected state Sen. Adam Hinds on his right, Pacheco said, “It’s so great working with your senator, he is so hopeful and optimistic. You can tell he’s new.” Amid laughter from the audience, Pacheco pivoted to the grave matter at hand. Using a PowerPoint presentation, he showed charted data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA studies that represented how the national temperatures had increased dramatically over the past decade.

The landmark Paris climate agreement was the work of decades of climate advocacy, protest and growing scientific consensus: 97 percent of climate scientists believe the earth is warming due to human activity. Now the U.S. finds itself on a surprisingly short list of nations that failed to sign or ratify the agreement: Nicaragua, Syria and the United States. But Pacheco said that he refuses to give up hope. He recalled watching former Vice President Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary many of the audience members mentioned they, too, had seen. Compelled by observing the horrors of climate change play out on the big screen, Pacheco was driven to become what he referred to as a “climate messenger.” He traveled down to Nashville, Tennessee, shortly thereafter to be trained by Gore himself on how to educate the public about climate change.

Pacheco’s goal was not to prove the existence of climate change, but to demonstrate that clean energy production could do the opposite of what the president claimed–grow the economy by creating millions of new jobs.

Pacheco explained that 15 percent of the electricity in the United States is generated using renewable energy sources, primarily wind, hydroelectric and solar power. In all but nine states, there are more jobs in clean energy than in fossil fuels. Massachusetts alone has over 105,000 jobs in clean energy and that number is growing rapidly. Extolling the virtues of offshore wind power, Pacheco added, “We are the Saudi Arabia of wind power.” The way he and Hinds see it, renewable energy presents the biggest opportunity for jobs and economic growth in their lifetimes.

After a concise presentation, Pacheco opened the floor to questioning. Perhaps believing that the audience members would be as concise in their comments as he was, Pacheco made the regrettable decision not to place a time limit on each speaker.

Immediately, drama ensued.

The first seven speakers came ready to do battle against something they believed Pacheco had ignored in his presentation: wind power.

One opponent of wind energy was armed with a three-page testimonial about his plight of living near a wind turbine. He presented his document in the oratory style of a contestant in a slam poetry competition: quickly, nervously and with pauses designed to draw out the maximum impact of his words. He began, “Do you know what it’s like to live for 30 years in peace and quiet, to come home and see 350-foot blades from wind turbines in your neighborhood? Do you know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable in your own yard, having to listen to an industrial noise that never seems to end?”

His testimony was impassioned and clearly sincere, but the speakers that followed earned less sympathy from the audience.

The next speaker was appalled at the discovery that being near a wind turbine made her “feel weird.” To make matters worse, one man went as far as to suggest that the suicide of his neighbor had been triggered by the noise pollution created from a nearby wind turbine.

In the spotlight, Pacheco kept his cool as, one by one, residents stood up to complain about the sound pollution and visual impact of wind turbines. After the first hour, he said that the audience’s concerns had been heard before and would be taken seriously, but that is was time to shift the conversation to cover new territory.

The dialogue took a brief pause from complaints to talk about what the state could do besides investing more heavily in wind and solar. One resident suggested building a commuter rail to New York. Fiber-optic Internet as well as more money allocated towards public education were also suggested as ways to involve the community in cutting dependence on fossil fuels.

The event was scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. but ran an hour longer. With outbreaks of contention and speakers who appeared more intent on hijacking the conversation rather than contributing to it, the hearing turned into a forum on the perils of wind turbines. Despite this, Pacheco insisted that all 40 people who had signed up to speak would have the opportunity to do so.

Clearly, constituents sent a strong message that night to Pacheco. The upshot was that wind turbines can cause real harm to small communities: They create serious noise pollution and require mountain tops to be converted into construction sites. However, wind turbines generate nearly twice the electricity as photovoltaic cells and are among the most viable alternatives to fossil fuels.

Pacheco had said in an email blast, “This tour is an answer to thousands of constituent conversations, calls and emails concerning the health and future of our local communities, our state, our country and our world as a whole.” He may not have gotten the answers he was looking for, but sometimes that’s the price of acting democratically and listening to the people.