What has changed in a year?

Governor meets with critics of proposed wind project in Grafton and Windham, but questions still persist

GRAFTON — Last week, a handful of Grafton residents spoke with Governor Peter Shumlin, who had agreed to take ten minutes of his busy schedule to meet with us. He knew the topic: our concerns about a proposed industrial wind project in Grafton/Windham.

While we presented our concerns - impact on the environment, noise and health, tourism and economy, property values - in those few minutes, the meeting made me reflect on a few questions.

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What would a large industrial wind power plant do to a small town like Grafton?

One member of our group, Carol Lind, put it beautifully: “Take the peace, quiet, pristine rural character of Grafton away, and it's like taking the art out of an art museum.” The reasons why we visit and live here could be blown away. We could lose the only assets we have.

The project is in its test phase - and maybe it will never go further. Maybe the numbers won't add up to enough profit for the wind company and the landowner.

For those who haven't experienced what happens when Big Wind blows in to a community scattering promises of money, it begins to divide the community.

Battle lines get drawn. Tensions rise. Direct talk gets harder, and there is a lot of talking behind backs.

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What has changed in a year?

A year ago, Grafton and Windham first heard about the proposed project. The introduction sounded benign. There was talk about “temporary test towers” which would only need a “pickup truck” and “existing logging roads” to install.

But some residents started digging into facts. We discovered that wind energy in Vermont has a poor cost/benefit ratio: with our low and unreliable wind “resource,” little energy will be produced at a high cost to the environment, the taxpayer, the ratepayer, the economy, the health, and the quality of life of Vermonters.

Just like citizens in any other targeted town, we educated ourselves. We learned that Vermont already has the lowest carbon footprint in the country, and that 1 percent of our fossil-fuel use goes to energy generation. (Heating, transportation, and industrial uses account for the majority.) By simply insulating our older homes, we would gain savings in our energy consumption. The grid in Vermont often has to curtail wind power.

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We listened to experts, such as Professor Ben Luce at Lyndon State College.

“We need renewable energy development, now, and in spades, but it is essential that we develop sources that truly have the technical potential to meet most or all of the energy needs of the Northeastern U.S., and that will not essentially destroy Vermont's fragile environment,” Luce says.

“Unfortunately, ridgeline wind power does not meet these criteria. Not even close. Solar power does, but as we have seen at events in Grafton, proponents of wind power are intentionally denigrating this much-better source.

“We need to overcome these distortions and get down to the business of really transforming our energy system in a way that will truly succeed and is in keeping with protecting our environment.”

Vermonters are waking up to the more complicated picture behind simple sound bites about “clean, green, renewable” energy. Locally, many of us have come to understand how important renewable energy is - the right kind. We support solar and are pleased that our town is in establishing a solar committee. Small-scale wind might be fine. Proper siting is critical.

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Our legislators have also educated themselves on the issues, so - finally - there is real debate in Montpelier. This winter, the Senate came close to approving a bill that would have given towns a say in the permitting process. The Energy Generation Siting Commission came up with recommendations, which are now under further scrutiny.

The Therrien family came to talk to us about living in the shadow of 16 wind turbines in Sheffield. The noise has ruined the sleep and well-being of the small children and their parents. Their personal story was sobering news to many in Grafton, who had not known how disturbing and disruptive the wind turbines could be to one's health. It was a hardship for the Therriens to travel to southern Vermont, but they wanted to warn us: “Don't let this happen to you.”

We also checked our language. We noticed that those who promote industrial wind energy like to talk about “wind farms.” What could be more eco-friendly, green, more Vermont-ish than a “farm?”

But there is nothing remotely farm-like about the turbine sites. Industrial-grade roads are built, ridge tops are blasted away, concrete platforms the size of mall parking lots are built.

And we don't talk about “windmills” either. We are not looking at charming 17th-century Dutch drawings.

* * *

We concluded our brief meeting with the governor with three requests:

1. We asked the governor to appoint someone to fill an expired seat on the Public Service Board who has a background in helping communities deal with large industrial development.

2. We asked the governor to clarify what his administration's position is on the towns' authority in the permitting process.

3. We asked the governor to take action to keep us and all Vermonters safe from potential health risks and environmental hazards, should projects like the one proposed in Grafton/Windham go forward.

To the last point, the Governor said that he takes “the safety of Vermonters very seriously.” But he also stated, “Birds, bats, and bears are expendable” in the effort to “keep the planet safe.”

This response left us wondering: How much of Vermont is expendable? Is it okay to alter our ridgelines, our watersheds, our animal habitats and ultimately the quality of life of our people, when we can choose effective and less destructive alternatives?

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