The backlash against Big Wind is taking place from Maine to California. But few states have seen more resistance to the landscape-destroying sprawl of wind energy than Vermont. Indeed, wind energy has emerged as one of the most prominent issues in Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in the Green Mountain State.
At issue is the ability of towns in Vermont to limit or stop the development of wind- and solar-energy projects. The Democratic candidates have defined themselves by the degree to which they favor local control. That this showdown is happening in Bernie Sanders’s home state gives it extra symbolic importance. During his campaign, Sanders proposed an energy scheme that would rely almost entirely on wind and solar energy. But a close reading of his scheme shows that it would have required a whopping 20-fold increase in Vermont’s wind-generation capacity.
Another reason for the spotlight on the Vermont race is the role of Bill McKibben, one of America’s highest-profile climate activists. Last week, McKibben, a resident of Vermont and the founder of 350.org, switched his endorsement in the gubernatorial race from a candidate (Matt Dunne) who favors local control over renewable projects to one who doesn’t (Sue Minter). More on McKibben in a moment.
The state’s wind-energy developers, along with one of Vermont’s most influential lobby firms, KSE Partners, have lined up squarely behind Minter, a former state representative. According to Vermont news outlet Seven Days, wind-energy developers and their lobbyists are contributing heavily to a super PAC that purchased $120,000 worth of TV ads last week. Those ads focus on labeling Minter as the “progressive” in the race.
Opposing Minter for the nomination are former state senator Peter Galbraith and Dunne, a former state representative. Galbraith has told acquaintances that the main reason he is running for governor is to stop the wind-energy sector’s destruction of the state’s mountain and ridges. On his campaign website, Galbraith says, “Industrial Wind Turbines do not belong on Vermont’s ridgelines. Our mountains are the most pristine and ecologically sensitive places in Vermont. . . . Industrial wind turbines do not produce green energy.”
Dunne, who claims that he was the first candidate for governor to endorse Sanders for president, caused a ruckus when he changed his position on wind energy. On July 29, Dunne issued a statement in favor of local control: “Large-scale ridgeline wind projects should only take place with the approval of the towns where the projects are located. As governor, I will ensure that no means no.”
Two days after Dunne’s statement, McKibben announced he was switching his support to Minter. That’s newsworthy because McKibben favors local control when it comes to restrictions on natural-gas development. McKibben recently endorsed efforts by Colorado activists to put initiatives on the Colorado ballot that would allow local communities to ban hydraulic fracturing. But McKibben doesn’t believe local residents should have similar power to stop wind-energy projects.
The importance of the local-control issue became apparent during an August 4 debate that Vermont Public Radio conducted among the Democratic candidates. The first question put to three candidates by VPR’s Bob Kinzel was about renewable-energy siting. Minter gleefully told listeners that she had been endorsed by McKibben and that local communities shouldn’t be able to stop wind projects because “climate change is here.” In his response on the same question, Galbraith didn’t equivocate. He said that wind projects built atop Vermont’s ridgelines are “an ecological disaster.”
Of course, the backlash against Big Wind in Vermont and elsewhere isn’t the story the American Wind Energy Association and its myriad minions in the left-wing media are pushing. Annette Smith, the executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, a small nonprofit group that has been active in the state’s energy-project-siting battles for 17 years, told me “The pro-wind lobby is mad that wind energy has become a high-profile issue,” in the gubernatorial race. “They want to keep this all hidden.”
Minter’s financial backers include David Blittersdorf, a businessman who built a 10-megawatt wind-energy project in Georgia, Vt. Blittersdorf is trying to build another project near the town of Irasburg. That proposal has been met with fierce local opposition. Last October 1, residents of Irasburg held a town meeting on the 5-megawatt wind project that Blittersdorf is pushing. The meeting concluded with a vote. The tally: 274 against the wind project and 9 in favor.
The backlash against Big Wind in Vermont has been raging for years. In 2011, seven people were arrested near Lowell after they prevented construction vehicles from reaching the site of a 21-turbine wind project being built on top of Lowell Mountain. In July 2012, about 150 protesters gathered at the same site; two were arrested. A month later, six protesters were arrested at the same site.
In March 2015, the Northeastern Vermont Development Association voted unanimously in favor of a resolution that said “no further development of industrial-scale wind turbines should take place in the Northeast Kingdom.” The association covers 21 percent of Vermont’s land area.
Last November, residents of Swanton, Vt., voted on a seven-turbine wind project proposed to be built atop nearby Rocky Ridge. The tally was 731 votes against the wind project with 160 in favor. On December 14, the Selectboard in the town of Fairfield, Vt., which sits a few miles southeast of Swanton, declared their opposition to the same project.
‘Destroying the natural environment in the name of climate change is moronic.’
— John S. Rodgers
In January, John S. Rodgers, a Democrat in the Vermont state Senate, along with another Democrat, Robert Starr, introduced a bill that would have banned large wind projects in Vermont. (The text of the legislation limits projects to 500 kilowatts of capacity.) At about the same time, an identical bill with 24 co-sponsors was filed in the Vermont House. Rodgers told me in January that he filed the legislation to protect Vermont’s tourism industry. “People come here from around the world for our scenic vistas and rural working landscape,” he said. Asked whether concerns about climate change should trump the concerns of rural communities, he replied, “Destroying the natural environment in the name of climate change is moronic.”
Rodgers’s bill banning wind projects did not pass. State policymakers are now wrangling over compromise legislation that gives only token power to local communities.
On Sunday evening, I interviewed Mark Whitworth, the president of the board of directors of Energize Vermont, a nonprofit group that “advocates for renewable energy solutions in harmony with the irreplaceable character of Vermont.” Whitworth told me that he “couldn’t be happier” that wind energy has become a central issue in the state’s gubernatorial race. He points out that about 160 cities, towns, and villages in Vermont have signed onto the Rutland Resolution, a document that calls for more local control over the siting of renewable-energy projects.
“For years and years, it has been a given that all renewables are intrinsically good no matter where they are placed,” Whitworth said. “Now people are realizing that that just ain’t so. People are realizing that the renewable industry is made up of bullies who are interested only in profits. They aren’t concerned at all about the environment.”
Regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination for governor, it’s clear that Big Wind faces tough sledding in Bernie Sanders’s home state. Both of the contenders for the Republican nomination — current lieutenant governor Phil Scott and political novice and former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman — oppose large-scale wind projects in the state.
On Vermont Public Radio, Scott recently said, “I think it’s unfair to destroy our ridgelines any further than they have already, and I think we should stop now.” Lisman has called for a two-year moratorium on large wind and solar projects in Vermont.