The Legislature’s response to public concern about the proliferation of wind towers on Vermont’s mountaintops is lurching toward what may be a positive outcome.
It has been a vexing controversy, dividing environmentalists, dividing communities. The peaks that define the horizon wherever you happen to be standing in the state are woven into the soul of the people. And yet most Vermonters remain aware in varying degrees of the need to develop sources of sustainable energy.
Public opinion, as far as we can tell from poll results, seems to favor by comfortable margins the development of wind energy. But that is opinion broadly measured. In certain areas, wind power is broadly and deeply resented, mainly because the installation of wind towers transforms cherished mountain ridges into industrial zones.
There are better regions for efficient wind generation — Texas, for example, or the Plains States. The wide open Palouse country of Oregon and Washington has hundreds of wind towers. By contrast, the topography of Vermont means that towers built on suitable sites loom closely over human settlements.
Some regions have calculated the environmental and economic impacts and voted in favor of wind power. That is what happened in Lowell, allowing Green Mountain Power to proceed with a project that has been the focus of bitter controversy. Surrounding towns, such as Craftsbury and Albany, did not get a vote, and many people there don’t like the presence of huge wind machines on nearby mountaintops. There have been protests and arrests in Lowell, and the jury is still out on the environmental impact of building a road on a high mountain ridge.
In response to the construction of that and other projects, wind opponents have promoted a three-year moratorium on wind projects. Some high-profile figures have opposed the moratorium, saying it would send the wrong message to a world struggling to come to grips with climate change: that even environmentally conscious Vermont can’t get behind sustainable energy. These moratorium critics have included author and activist Bill McKibben and Sen. Bernard Sanders, who have been vilified for defending “Big Wind.”
To accuse McKibben and Sanders of becoming corporate tools is a stretch. The development of wind power remains an important component of a climate change strategy, and for wind power to have an impact it must be pushed by companies with the technology and resources to carry out the job. Certainly, the bigness of “Big Wind” is not on the same scale as the bigness of “Big Oil.”
And yet Vermont’s environmental ethos, going back as far as the creation of Act 250, provides a place for local communities to defend their interests. It was a travesty when ski chalets in the 1960s were streaming sewage onto mountainsides, and Act 250 allowed towns to weigh in on whether mountain development was appropriate.
Energy development does not come under the purview of Act 250, however, and the Public Service Board need not consider town plans or zoning in approving wind projects. Officials as high as Gov. Peter Shumlin, a wind booster, pay lip service to the idea of local control, but local control on energy projects has no place in the statutes.
That may change. The moratorium has not gained traction in the Legislature, but as a House committee takes up an energy bill this week, there is more talk about amending the law so that local communities have an increased say.
It would be too bad if a project had local support but a moratorium quashed it. It would also be too bad if a project were universally despised in its host communities but a town’s lack of standing in the process did not allow the PSB to take into account local views.
Popular opposition among townspeople and town boards in Pittsford, Hubbardton, Castleton and West Rutland has put a temporary moratorium on a project proposed for Grandpa’s Knob. Even boosters such as Shumlin say they don’t want to cram any projects down townspeople’s throats. The Legislature ought to be looking for ways that towns can be empowered to prevent that from happening.
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