Which price do we pay?

Keeping additional industrial-scale wind power out of our region is shortsighted and dangerous. Is there any middle ground?

BRATTLEBORO — The draft Windham Regional Commission Energy Plan is disturbing, because its wording and its biases would effectively exclude economically efficient, acutely needed, renewable wind energy almost everywhere in the county where it would be feasible to site.

Yet, I have some sympathies with industrial-wind-energy opponents, with those who would like to preserve our ridgelines intact.

Is there any middle ground to advocate for both?

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Though I moved to southern Vermont only 15 years ago, I have been hiking and skiing here (downhill and cross-country) since the mid-1960s. The trails are intimate, the brush with plant and animal life sometimes close and occasionally unexpected. The views are breathtaking, the ridges can be challenging, the hollows are comforting.

Meanwhile, I have been volunteering in community energy work for the last 10 years, because I have come to realize how much of a threat climate change is, not just to the planet as a whole but also to our local way of life.

Much of Vermont's fauna and flora are at risk. Many bird species are threatened or endangered. We are projected to lose our iconic maple trees. The very snow we ski on is way more unpredictable than it used to be.

Climate change is playing a huge role in all of this. To ignore that is to have one's head in the sand. There is also mounting evidence that it is happening more rapidly than was initially anticipated.

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The draft Energy Plan is very concerning. There is a direct correlation between the plan's “Resource Lands,” where all development is discouraged except for forestry and agriculture, and the ridges where wind power would be most efficient and effective.

There is another land category, the “Productive Rural Lands,” where the proposed restrictions against development are not as tight but where industrial-scale wind turbines would still not be allowed.

Those two categories of land comprise 90 percent of the total land area in our region, according to figures supplied by the WRC.

The plan proposes to meet the state's renewable-energy goals for Windham County essentially through development of a lot of solar power. New solar power is a good thing.

However, according to engineering analyses, to produce the same amount of power as wind turbines, solar arrays would need approximately 10 times as much land area.

At the same time, it would cost two or three times as much to erect and maintain those solar arrays as the equivalent wind facilities. Nowhere in the draft Energy Plan are these differences described, but they certainly should be.

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To be clear about my own feelings, if I am standing on the Putney Mountain/Pinnacle ridge - which I am very happy is conserved, an effort to which I have contributed money - I don't want to look out at a sea of wind turbines.

Yet, I would be open to seeing some turbines in that view shed. One approach might be to limit them to the proximity of areas that have already been disturbed, such as where there are ski area trails and towers, or where power lines already run, or where access roads have already been constructed. (The tops of Stratton, Magic Mountain, Mt. Snow, and Haystack/Hermitage are in the plan's “Resort Center” category, and so are not proposed for restrictions.)

Another approach might be to allow for a finite number of additional wind-power farms in the region (three? two?), each with a finite number of turbines (ten? eight?). A third approach could be to work with towns that are open to having these facilities sited within their boundaries. (The Energy Plan draft policies do not allow room for town-by-town exceptions to the “Resource Lands” and “Productive Rural Lands” restrictions.)

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That such wind facilities would likely need to go up on ridgelines somewhere in the “Resource Lands” or “Productive Rural Lands” would be a price we would need to pay (some soil disturbance, some bird mortality) because of the significant benefits that the corresponding renewable energy would bring.

Also, allowing some wind towers can help forest tracts stay in forestry and not get developed for other uses; allowing some wind towers can help agricultural tracts stay in agriculture. That is certainly happening in other windy areas of the country.

Keeping additional industrial-scale wind power out of our region is shortsighted and dangerous. I personally think we should put limits on how much wind power development we are willing to accommodate, but excluding it widely will play a role in having us fall further behind in the progress that we sorely need to make.

Our ridges will become more vulnerable to extreme weather events, more changed by the changing climate, and more devoid of the bird life and other wildlife and experiences we've come to love.

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