Two messages that could not have painted a starker contrast
Approximately 30 people staged a protest as the Renewable Energy Vermont conference was getting underway.

Two messages that could not have painted a starker contrast

The views from inside and outside the Renewable Energy Vermont conference

BRATTLEBORO — On Oct. 6, former Vice President Al Gore gave an updated showing of his Inconvenient Truth climate change presentation at the University of Vermont.

Gore commended Vermont's political leaders and the state for leading the country in the development of renewable energy, and he also told the packed audience that we “need to put a price on carbon [pollution].”

Two days later, roughly 30 protesters lined busy Williston Avenue in South Burlington to protest as the Renewable Energy Vermont (REV) annual conference was getting underway.

Signs read: “No Wind Turbines, Save the Ridge,” “Our Government Doesn't Care,” “We Are Victims,” “Clean Energy = Dirty Business,” and “Stop Destroying Vermont.”

The two messages could not have painted a starker contrast.

At the conference, speakers and workshops were buzzing. Vermont has set a goal of achieving 90 percent renewable energy across all sectors by 2050, and participants were hard at work digging through the nuts and bolts of how to make that happen.

Workshop topics included recent legislation, hydropower, biomass energy, a carbon tax, microgrids, and project financing. Behind it all was a backdrop of the protesters outside, and the people in Vermont who object to our ambitious energy goals.

“Some complain and say these goals are problematic or unrealistic,” one participant said. “Others roll up their sleeves and say 'Where do we start?'”

* * *

Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith gave the keynote address on Friday morning. Smith has been a champion of renewable energy in the state, shepherding complex legislation through the house and senate which has put the state in the forefront of states and countries trying to address climate change.

In his address, he mentioned that Vermont has always had a working landscape. Smith noted that working the land, particularly for agricultural use, is part of the state's heritage and traditions.

“Today, more and more Vermonters are harvesting the sun and wind. This transition is really about developing a local economy,” he said. “Vermont spends almost $3 billion a year on energy, and keeping that money local is a priority.”

At the same time, the Speaker acknowledged that there are issues. The siting of public assets has always been a challenge, and he noted our Interstate Highway System and power transmission lines as examples.

Smith also said that he is committed to working together to make sure we are meeting our local, regional, and statewide commitments to an energy future that serves Vermonters.

* * *

Others, however, are not impressed.

Christine Lang, among the protesters that morning, lives in a neighborhood in Swanton near a proposed wind project. She said that there is a lack of siting requirements and numerous issues “known worldwide” that result from wind turbines, including health effects from the turbines' noise, runoff affecting downstream water quality, and the death of migratory birds.

She mentioned particular ailments that she said wind turbines cause, including tinnitus, heart problems, sleep deprivation, and depression.

At the same time, Lang also admitted that some close neighbors of wind turbines are not affected by these problems. Her organization has put up a website where articles can be found.

Renewable Energy Vermont, however, does not buy it.

“The science just does not bear out their claims, and we urge people to do their own research,” REV Director Gabrielle Stebbins said in an interview.

“Water quality is actually improved in the watersheds below these wind projects, and the sound from the turbines is well below permitted levels. Between these distributed renewable energy projects and conservation, we have saved over $400 million in infrastructure improvement costs in Vermont.

“Renewable energy creates jobs, and I am deeply proud to be part of an industry that is allowing young Vermonters to stay in the state and have high-paying, meaningful jobs that are making a difference in the world.”

REV has posted scientific papers on the study of health and environmental effects of wind power on the website:

* * *

Stebbins said that the REV conference is one of the few places in Vermont where people come together across technologies and disciplines to discuss topics as divergent as thermal energy conservation and the state's Comprehensive Energy Plan, wind, solar, heat pumps, and alternative transportation.

When asked how she would respond to a specific complaint, like “The wind turbines above my house are keeping me from sleeping at night,” she became quiet and thoughtful.

“That would make me sad,” she said. “Not every neighbor of a wind project has problems sleeping, though, so I would want to talk with the person, find out what else might be going on, and try to get them to see the global benefits of replacing our coal and oil energy with wind.”

On a related note, Stebbins and REV members are working to develop programs and practices where local households, towns, and businesses might become investors and part owners of the wind projects that are developed in their towns.

“I would like there to be a mechanism that allows local neighbors to benefit from these projects above and beyond the property taxes,” she said.

“To that end, I will be convening a meeting of large-scale wind and solar project developers and state agencies to think through how to make this happen,” she added. “We have already seen this with community solar; it's time to make it happen with wind power.”

* * *

Tony Klein, chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, spoke at the conference in one of the large assemblies. In this role, he has gotten a lot of flack from people who are opposed to large renewable-energy projects in Vermont.

When asked about the underpinnings of the state's goal to produce more energy in-state, he highlighted three historic motivations: the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s, acid rain in the '80s and '90s, and the ice storm of 1998 that took out power throughout the Northeast - for months, in some cases - and cost ratepayers a bundle.

“We are moving towards more local generation of power in Vermont because it is more sustainable, reliable, makes our grid more secure, and has enormous economic benefits,” he said.

“If folks want to have input on the size or location of a project, that's fine. We have one of the most rigorous regulatory processes in the country.

“But if they are just trying to stop renewable energy from happening, I politely disagree.”

To those who say we should just get more power from Hydro-Québec instead of in-state renewables, he suggests that they call the head of their utility company and ask what their experience has been with Hydro-Québec over the years, and find out if getting more power from that source is really an option.

* * *

The first half of Al Gore's presentation was the doom and gloom – glaciers melting, 1,000 year storms, heat waves and droughts getting worse around the globe.

It ended, however, on a very positive note.

“Fifteen years ago, the experts said that we would get 30 gigawatts (GW) of energy from wind by 2010. We beat that estimate by 12 times over. For solar, it is a similar exponential curve: 62 GW this year.

“Now we have to put a price on carbon in our markets, and we have to put a price on denial in our politics.”

Gore also thanked Burlington for becoming the first city in America to use 100-percent renewable electricity.

“We are going to win this struggle,” he said.

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