Big Wind lost big last Tuesday.
While it’s not clear what Donald Trump’s election means for federal energy policy, it’s abundantly obvious that the wind-energy sector’s agenda was crushed in Vermont. Indeed, thanks to the resounding — and somewhat improbable — election of a new Republican governor, Phil Scott, it is possible that Vermont could ban construction of new wind projects. And in the towns of Grafton and Windham, voters rejected the proposed Stiles Brook wind project by big margins.
Scott’s whopping nine-point victory over Democratic nominee Sue Minter is all the more impressive considering that Vermont voted overwhelmingly for Democrats at the federal and state levels. Hillary Clinton beat Trump in the Green Mountain State by 29 points, and Democrats won huge majorities of the popular vote in every other state and federal race. Minter was apparently hoping to ride Clinton’s coattails.
Instead, she lost to Scott, despite being backed by a pro-wind-energy PAC called Wind Works Vermont and by one of America’s most prominent environmentalists, Bill McKibben. McKibben is a resident of Vermont (he teaches at Middlebury College) and the founder of 350.org, a group which aims to “stop all new fossil fuel projects.” A few months ago, McKibben published a cover story in the New Republic in which he declared that the American economy should be running solely on wind and solar energy. He has frequently declared the need to “do the math,” but he didn’t bother to note that if such an all-renewable scheme were pursued, it would require a 20-fold increase in Vermont’s wind-energy capacity.
Although it cannot be stated definitively that wind energy was the deciding factor in Scott’s win over Minter, it is abundantly obvious that wind has been one of the most divisive issues in the state. During the Democratic primary for governor, two of the three candidates, Matt Dunne and Peter Galbraith, opposed wind-energy development. In fact, Galbraith made opposition to wind energy the primary focus of his campaign. In the August primary, Galbraith came in third, with about 6,500 votes. Shortly after the primary, he told me that wind-energy development “was the issue [in the Democratic primary] and I think in the general election it will be an issue as well.” It appears that nearly all of Galbraith’s supporters went on to vote for Scott, who ended up beating Minter by more than 27,000 votes.
While Scott’s victory provides some clues about wind energy’s fate in Vermont, the clearest example of rural opposition to the encroachment of Big Wind came from voters in Grafton and Windham, the two towns that have been fighting the 82-megawatt Stiles Brook wind project for four years. Last month, Spanish energy company Iberdrola announced that it would distribute about $565,000 per year among 815 registered voters in the two towns if the voters agreed to have the project built. The payments were to continue for 25 years. But voters weren’t interested. In Grafton, 60 percent of voters opposed the project. (235 votes opposed to 158 votes in favor). In Windham, the anti-wind sentiment was even stronger, with 64 percent voting against the project (181-101).
After the vote a Grafton resident, Anna Visely Pilette, told Vermont Public Radio that “Two little towns were able to stand up to an immense corporation, with all of its resources, all of its lawyers all of its lobbyists . . . I just am very gratified.” In the wake of the vote, Iberdrola officials said they would abandon the Stiles Brook project even though they claimed it would have – get this — made “an impact towards energy independence and climate change.”
As a result of Scott’s election, and the votes in Grafton and Windham, “things are looking up in Vermont,” says Annette Smith, the executive director of the non-profit Vermonters for a Clean Environment and a longtime opponent of wind-energy development in the state. “We have a governor who won’t roll over for the wind business.”