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June 13, 2012

Opinion | Editorials

June 13,2012
Reunion Power has run into powerful headwinds as it pursues its plan to build up to 20 wind generators atop the ridge of Grandpa’s Knob.

The Castleton Select Board voted unanimously on Monday to oppose Reunion’s project. The vote followed a public meeting where company executives heard unyielding opposition from Castleton residents. Residents in other affected towns — Pittsford, West Rutland and Hubbardton — have also spoken out against the project.

Reunion has a good case to make for its proposal. Grandpa’s Knob is already the site of radio towers, with a road to the mountaintop providing access. And the mountain has a history as the site of one of the first wind generators, which operated for a time in the 1940s.

The case for wind remains a strong one. The global climate crisis is all too real, and if we are to respond in a meaningful way, we need to pursue all possible alternatives to fossil fuels. Wind is not the answer by itself, but a dozen or so wind projects in Vermont could produce a segment of our electrical power load that is far from insignificant. When combined with solar, biomass, and hydro projects, plus continuing conservation, the state could minimize the use of fossil fuels, even natural gas, which is the cheap, abundant, popular source of the moment.

And yet as utilities in Vermont have continued to pursue wind, popular opposition seems to have grown stronger. Wind projects in Sheffield and Lowell have outraged local residents who view the construction of massive wind turbines on pristine mountain ridges as an environmental travesty. Developers obtained local approval in those two towns, partly because the towns stand to benefit from tax revenues and other payments that will ease local tax burdens. But opposition has remained strong and feelings have been bitter.

The developers point to the steps taken to minimize environmental harm, either from erosion or from damage to wildlife habitats. In Lowell the Agency of Natural Resources worked with the developer, Green Mountain Power, to protect vulnerable bear habitats. In Sheffield, the developer, First Wind, touted its stormwater control system.

Residents of Castleton, Pittsford, West Rutland and Hubbardton seem to be unpersuaded. Vermonters have a visceral connection to their woods and mountains. Act 250, the state’s principal land use law, contains special protections for high mountain regions, though the law does not apply to power projects. Opponents point to the rejection of a parkway in the Green Mountains in the 1930s, saying it would be a shame if the state were to decide 80 years later to allow roads and wind turbines on its mountaintops.

Reunion has refused to agree to back down in the face of local opposition. In fact, authority for approving the project does not reside with town voters, town boards or with district environmental commissions. It belongs to the Public Service Board. All four towns could oppose the project, and if the PSB rules that Reunion meets legal criteria under the law, it could proceed.

Our energy dilemma is complicated. Opponents argue that the limited power output of a given wind project is not worth the environmental damage, and they have a point. Wind power can be significant in the aggregate, but the aggregate will only be significant if individual projects receive approval.

As opposition to wind grows more fierce at the local level, the question is whether Vermont is suited to wind power. Vast wind farms have been successful in Texas, Washington, California and other wide open spaces. Vermont’s mountains — visible, beloved and more densely inhabited than other settings — may be less appropriate. This was the position of former Gov. James Douglas.

A wind project proposed for Ira and surrounding towns a few years ago crumbled in the face of local opposition. The question is: Who is best capable of determining whether wind towers on our mountains are suitable? In Lowell and Sheffield local residents said yes. What if they say no?

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