Whoa! to wind energy development in Vermont

It is not too late for Vermont to stop and take a serious look at wind turbine development on our mountains.

In fact, now is exactly the right time to step back and evaluate what we know, and build on experience.

When polled, most Vermonters say they support wind energy. Imagining the Searsburg turbines, I answered “yes, even near my house.” They are only 197 feet tall, unlighted, not too many, not very visible. I thought they were beautiful when I saw them in 2001.

When Vermonters started calling VCE in 2009 seeking assistance with wind proposals, I quickly learned the technology has changed.

Today’s machines are “big. They’re very, very big,“ said Jeff Wennberg, while promoting the Ira project. Vermont’s Public Service Board (PSB) has approved four projects with turbines ranging from 410 to 459 feet tall. Vermonters have not been asked what they think about anything that big.

Vermonters who live near mountains where wind turbines have been proposed have learned about all the issues associated with the technology. Call them NIMBYs or wackos, yell at them if they use the word “industrial” instead of “utility scale,” call them a vocal minority or a fringe group, they now number in the thousands and have had to become educated by reason of location.

If you live in the “sacrifice zone” of wind energy development (draw a circle with a radius of two miles from the ridgeline — you get the impacts but no compensation), you learn that wind turbines:

a) collapse, catch fire, throw ice, throw blades,
b) kill birds like raptors, and endangered bats
c) require cutting bear-scarred beech trees and fragmenting wildlife habitat
d) destroy songbird habitat
e) require hundreds of thousands of pounds of explosives to blast miles of new roads
f) require impervious road construction on highly erodible soils
g) require filling headwater streams and degrading water quality, resulting in fewer fish
h) make noise extending over a mile that can interrupt sleep and make people sick
i) are being permitted less than 200 feet from property lines
j) have blinking lights and industrialize the landscape
k) divide communities; turn neighbors, family members and towns against each other and more, with issues unique to ridgeline development in Vermont.

One large project is under construction in Sheffield, with 16 turbines 420 feet tall and seven miles of new roads. This kind of development is new to Vermont, and has the potential to change the face of the state. With more than a dozen communities targeted for proposals, this subject deserves more thoughtful consideration than is provided by two lawyers and one businessman in Montpelier who are making decisions on a case-by-case basis without any statewide planning.

Questions have been raised about PSB-approved wind projects that will be answered soon, once the Sheffield project goes on line and operates through a winter. We have the perfect opportunity to evaluate the performance of First Wind’s project.

Will the stormwater control design protect the high quality water resources and control the volume of water coming off the mountains?
Will noise be a problem for neighbors?
Will the technology withstand brutal winter conditions?
Will lights be an issue?
Will wind turbines inhibit or enhance tourism and the second home market?
How many permanent jobs with benefits will be created?
What will the capacity factor be?
How many birds and bats, and what type, will be killed?
What happens to the wildlife whose habitat is changed?
Will the PSB enforce its conditions?

We are in a fragile economy, with a glut of electricity available in New England at low cost for the foreseeable future. The price of solar energy is declining every day. More than 90 percent of Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions are from heating and transportation.

With so much at stake for Vermont, the prudent thing to do is stop, look and listen. Wind developers and our political leaders owe it to all Vermonters and our wild creatures to make sure we get this right.

On Friday, former Gov. Jim Douglas was on Vermont Public Radio and was asked about big wind turbines. He said, “…the natural beauty of Vermont is our strong suit, and to put these big machines on our precious ridgelines is not something that’s in the state’s interest…. I think it’s the wrong choice for Vermont.”

We have a lot to lose. Getting it wrong will be a very expensive mistake. For those people living near Vermont’s big wind energy proposals, it already has been.

Annette Smith is executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.

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