One of the provisions of the fiscal cliff-averting bill passed on Tuesday night was an extension of the energy tax credit that promotes the development of wind energy technology.
The energy tax credit has been important for wind developers in Vermont, including Green Mountain Power, which is responsible for the controversial wind project atop the Lowell Mountain ridgeline. It is even more useful in the states with wide open spaces and much wind to exploit, such as Texas, Washington, Iowa and California. In those regions of open, unobstructed topography wind turbines have gone up by the thousands, providing useful income and tax revenues for rural residents and local governments, while generating clean, carbon-free electricity. Thus, wind power has become one of the fastest growing segments of the energy industry, and the Obama administration has made an effort to promote it as part of its green energy strategy.
But you wouldn’t know it from the increasing public din in Vermont about wind power. In response to growing concern about wind development here, two senators, Joe Benning of Caledonia County and Robert Hartwell of Bennington County, plan to introduce legislation calling for a three-year moratorium on mountaintop wind projects.
It appears that Vermonters are already putting in place their own kind of moratorium. Residents of four towns in Rutland County — Hubbardton, Pittsford, West Rutland and Castleton — have all but unanimously rejected a proposal by Reunion Power to build a wind project on a mountain called Grandpa’s Knob. In response, the developer has said the project is now in limbo. Residents in the Windham region have also responded with alarm to plans for a wind project there.
It’s no mystery why Vermont residents would be resistant to large-scale wind energy while residents of other rural regions are receptive. Rural in Vermont is different from rural elsewhere. In Vermont our topography is more or less always right on top of us. The population is widely dispersed through the landscape, so there are few truly open spaces. Almost any wind project is going to be near someone’s home. The state lacks the kind of wide-open spaces that characterize the West and Midwest, where large uninhabited regions are made to order for wind energy. The open farmland of the Midwest means that the installation of wind turbines need not bother most people.
In addition, Vermonters have an emotional and intimate bond with their mountains. There is no mountain in Vermont that is just some random, unimportant mountain. People love their mountains, as GMP has learned in Lowell.
And yet Shumlin and his administration are right to maintain a focus on the development of green energy and not to be stampeded into a blanket rejection of wind power. Shumlin has said that if local residents reject a project, he will not support it. Thus, the moratorium option is available locally. But some wind projects may be appropriate in some places. The fear that the state will be overrun with wind turbines is unrealistic. Rather, some additional wind projects could continue to add to the state’s green energy total, which is a good thing as long as nearby residents are willing to accept it.
The energy tax credit is a useful mechanism for getting sustainable energy projects up and running. Certainly, nuclear and fossil fuel energy sources have enjoyed government benefits that far outstrip anything wind developers might be getting in the effort to get their technology off the ground. And once their turbines are up, the power is free and clean.
In the long run, Vermont may find that solar power has greater potential than wind, particularly in the summer months, when the utilities encounter peak energy usage. GMP is just getting started with its solar initiative in Rutland, and other municipalities can be expected to join in. We need to continue to say yes to sustainable energy, even as we refine our understanding of what types of energy development are appropriate for our beautiful, mountainous state.
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