Vermont loves renewable energy, except when it arrives
MONTPELIER -- Getting energy from the sun, wind and forests fits with Vermont's sense of itself as clean, green and independent. But when it comes time to build and live with the projects that make it possible, things can get complicated.
The state's own comprehensive energy plan contemplates a future of electric cars and renewable sources providing 90 percent of its energy needs. And Vermont was recently rated No. 1 in solar industry jobs per capita.
But strong opposition from citizens' groups to a wind-power project in Lowell, the recent vote by property owners to reject a proposed wind farm in northeastern Vermont, and a ruling by state regulators against a proposed wood-burning power plant in southern Vermont have some questioning the state's willingness to turn talk into action.
"It's time for Vermont to grow up and get real on the future, and the future is renewables," said David Blittersdorf, co-owner of another wind-power project, Georgia Mountain Community Wind.
Vermont is not alone in its ambivalence. Cape Wind has been battling legal challenges and the Massachusetts permit process for more than a decade as it looks to build the nation's first off-shore wind farm in Nantucket Sound. It now appears on track and announced a $600 million tentative financing deal this past week.
The giant Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, in the Mohave Desert near the Nevada-California border, opened this past month, but only after years of legal tangles, including a fight over the fate of a species of desert tortoise.
Vermont has not always been friendly to more traditional energy sources, either.
The state's lone nuclear plant is to close at the end of the year. Vermont Yankee owner Entergy Corp. says it is doing so for economic reasons. But Gov. Peter Shumlin, state lawmakers and vocal anti-nuclear groups had been trying to close the plant for years.
The Vermont Public Interest Research Group, a large and powerful consumer and environmental lobby, is fighting a plan to extend a natural gas pipeline that now serves just northwestern Vermont. It complains that using natural gas causes the carbon emissions blamed for climate change, and that the gas is being extracted in Canada with environmentally damaging hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a practice banned within Vermont's borders.
But if big energy installations have drawn fights, renewables -- long described as "alternative" energy sources -- haven't had a free ride, either. Even some solar installations have come under fire, despite their lack of carbon emissions and their apparent immunity from the charge levied at wind turbines that they kill birds and bats.
When developers proposed an array of solar panels on a south-facing field in Charlotte, south of Burlington, 75 people turned up at a public hearing. Eighteen spoke -- all in opposition.
The state Public Service Board eventually approved the project, ruling 13 months ago that its economic and environmental benefits outweighed what some neighbors called a visual blight on a stunning rural landscape.
The board ruled the other way last month on a plan to use wood cut from Vermont's forests to fuel an electrical generating station in North Springfield, saying wood is inefficient as a generation fuel and that heavy truck traffic would disrupt the surrounding neighborhood.
And some want to toughen the regulatory review process further. Legislation has been working its way through the Vermont Senate that could strengthen the hand of local residents and regional planners in reviewing new energy projects. Its prospects look dim in the House, however.
Annette Smith, founder of the group Vermonters for a Clean Environment and an outspoken critic of many energy projects, argued for a collaborative, community-based process, in which residents of a community or region gather to discuss their energy needs and how to meet them.
"It's merchant developers coming in and saying, ‘We're going to do this project whether you want it or not, and we've got the bucks," she said.
Gabrielle Stebbins, executive director of the industry group Renewable Energy Vermont, said the money is what is missing from Smith's idea.
"No one expects that they should be able, within our current capitalistic structure, to own a nuclear plant. But people seem frustrated if there is a large renewable energy project that is built and they don't own it," Stebbins said.
Industry officials e agreed, though, that smart developers make sure community residents are informed early in the development process and that their concerns are taken seriously.
"Critical to a successful project is working with communities to develop a project that not only creates cheap, clean energy but also benefits the local community," Christy Omohundro, director of eastern state policy for the American Wind Energy Association, said in an email.
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