Fifteen years after Searsburg, why are Vermonters still fighting about wind power?
The virtues or vices of wind power weren’t up for official debate at this year’s town meeting in the Northeast Kingdom town of Sheffield. The 16 massive wind turbines on a ridgeline in the town’s northeast corner have been turning since October, and most Sheffield voters showed up to decide how to spend the annual $520,000 payment the town will receive every year for the next 20 years.
But the drama began 15 minutes into what would become a nine-and-a-half-hour meeting, when embattled select board chair Max Aldrich was called on to defend his longtime seat on the board. Aldrich played a pivotal role in negotiating Sheffield’s contract with the First Wind developers — and since then, he’s been the target of accusations in a local newsletter accusing the selectman of mismanagement and withholding information.
Aldrich’s wife, Maureen, addressed the crowd with a voice charged with emotion, refuting the claims, and then turned to Max. “Max, this is not what you deserve after 25 years,” she said, to the applause of many of the gathered voters.
The public skirmish speaks to the tensions simmering beneath the surface in Sheffield, says Sutton resident Paul Brouha, who lives a mile from the nearest turbine. “It’s like an armed camp over there,” he says of the little Caledonia County town of 703 residents, where the median household income hovers just below $35,000.
But he might as well be speaking of the ongoing war over renewable-energy development in Vermont. Fifteen years after Vermont’s first commercial wind installation went online in Searsburg, the battle appears to be getting more pitched, not less. And its fiercest warriors are environmentalists, fighting against each other.
In one corner, and mustering greater numbers and political might, are those who say the state must aggressively pursue the development of renewable-energy sources, including large-scale wind. There’s a tradeoff in building roads and infrastructure into previously undeveloped habitat, they admit, but the bigger problem — climate change, with its far-reaching, global implications — demands action.
Not so fast, clamor the opponents of ridgeline wind power, who say the cost of developing the state’s iconic mountaintops is too great to wager. Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, says that even as proponents advocate for sacrifice in the face of climate change, residents near these projects are begging, “Don’t sacrifice us.”
“They are making climate-change victims out of the people who live around the projects,” she says.
Vermont environmental activist Bill McKibben balks at that statement. Visit Bangladesh, or El Salvador or even the trailer parks washed away in flooding from Tropical Storm Irene if you’re looking for victims of climate change, he says.
“I do understand why people value their ridgelines,” says McKibben. “It’s a very good sign that a certain kind of environmentalism has sunk in deep enough that people don’t want to turn over their landscape to the highest bidder. That said, we’re facing the most important civilizational challenge in human history when it comes to climate change.”
Between the two sides, it’s no man’s land.
“It’s a ‘nonversation,’” says Lukas Snelling, the director of Energize Vermont, a group that opposes large-scale wind development, arguing it’s out of scale with Vermont’s landscape.
“Wind divides. It divides communities. It divides families. And it divides environmentalists,” says Vermont writer Tom Slayton, a former editor of Vermont Life magazine. “It’s a very, very tough issue, and people tend to line up on one side or the other.” Part of the problem, he says, is that “the facts and statistics regarding wind power are not clear.”
Turbine Size Matters
Vermont’s first commercial wind project went up on a ridgeline in Searsburg, in southern Vermont, in 1997. The 198-foot towers are much smaller than the 420-footers in Sheffield, and the facility’s capacity taps out at 6 megawatts. The 11 550-kilowatt turbines are already obsolete by today’s standards, which can make repairs slow and difficult, but the blades are still turning. Green Mountain Power operates the facility on leased land, and estimates the turbines generate enough power for about 1600 homes.
Before Searsburg, Vermont was home to the world’s first megawatt-sized turbine. The pilot Smith-Putnam windmill started spinning in 1941 on Grandpa’s Knob, near Castleton, with the help of General Electric and Central Vermont Public Service. The experiment was short lived, in large part because mechanical problems proved too difficult to fix during wartime. The prototype was retired in 1945 and dismantled a year later. It was not an experiment without promise, though. In an introduction to engineer Palmer Putnam’s 1946 book about the experiment, a former dean of engineering at MIT wrote of the turbine, “And hence it proved that at some future time homes may be illuminated and factories may be powered by this new means.”
Still, the commercial wind industry in the United States didn’t take off for several more decades. Though energy crises of the 1970s kickstarted U.S. Department of Energy research into larger turbine designs, a boom-and-bust cycle of tax credits in the ’80s and ’90s — coupled with a decline in fossil-fuel prices — cut wind development off at the knees. At the same time, European countries such as Denmark, Spain and Germany rolled out long-term, consistent support of the new technology, and today wind energy accounts for roughly 20, 13 and 8 percent of those countries’ electricity, respectively.
The Searsburg project was, in its own way, something of an experiment: The site served in part as an education and research facility for wind generation in the Northeast, and lessons learned at Searsburg have factored into the design and performance of newer facilities. The project has come under attack from opponents, such as Energize Vermont, who claim that the turbines are inefficient and the energy produced at the site is expensive — but GMP says that just isn’t true. In 2010, the facility generated enough electricity to supply more than 2000 homes. The power sold at 6.3 cents per kilowatt hour, a rate that GMP says is more affordable than almost any other in-state renewable-power source.
Searsburg town clerk Josie Kilbride, who lives within sight of the turbines, doesn’t remember much of a hullabaloo about the project when it first went in. There were some informational meetings, as she recalls, but few residents attended. Wilmington real estate agent Meg Streeter turned out for some, curious about the effect the turbines might have on the real estate market. A number of residents moved away after the project went up, she says. Others moved in.
“It wasn’t like an exodus,” Streeter says.
Armand Roy was one of the newcomers. He lives on Route 8 in Searsburg. Asked if he can see the turbines from his home, he replies jovially, “Are you kidding? They’re my sentinels.” Roy crosses the living room of his small house and peers out at the turbines about a mile away. It’s rare that he can hear them, he says, but his driveway is a popular stopping point for passersby who pull over to snap photographs from the road.
Roy has lived in Searsburg for three years, and so he knew full well that he’d be looking at the turbines when he purchased his home. So did his neighbor, who has lived next door for 13 years — in a house vacated because of the windmills.
Wind turbines in Searsburg. Photo by Kathryn Flagg.
Wind Power — for a Price?
There may be more — and bigger — turbines in Searsburg’s future. The proposed Deerfield Wind project would be sited just south of the existing development, in the Green Mountain National Forest. Unlike the original Searsburg windmills, they’ve sparked fierce controversy in the region.
“Twenty years from now, somebody will come along and say, ‘Why did you guys let that happen?’” says realtor Streeter, who thinks lower income and out-of-the-way parts of the state are being targeted to sacrifice their vistas for wind power.
The new turbines would be nearly 200 feet taller than the existing ones and fitted with blinking red lights required by the Federal Aviation Administration. Some residents have raised concerns about the noise that the turbines will generate, the possible impact on wildlife habitat and the implications of ceding national forest land for wind development. But to Kilbride’s mind, a silent majority supports the project.
Residents in Searsburg voted resoundingly against the project in 2007, but by Town Meeting Day in 2008, the ayes had it. That’s likely because Deerfield Wind agreed to pay the town $240,000 a year for the inconvenience of hosting the windmills.
“One could argue, were they voting for the income or the windmills?” says selectman Gerald DeGray, who opposes the additional construction.
Deerfield’s developer, the U.S. division of Iberdola, S.A. in Spain, has already earned preliminary approval from the U.S. Forest Service and Vermont’s Public Service Board, which regulates the construction of energy developments. If constructed, it would be the first utility-scale wind project on national forest land.
A number of groups and individuals tried to stop the project at various stages of the process. Wilmington ponied up $40,000 to hire experts to look into the impact of the wind turbines on bear habitat and real estate values. Streeter joined the group Save Our Ridgelines and lobbied hard against the project, but in the end she says the group ran out of steam — and money. Smith’s Vermonters for a Clean Environment appealed the Forest Service permit.
People on both sides agree it’s not fair to compare the established Searsburg and proposed Deerfield projects; the old and new towers, they say, are like apples and oranges. Until the Deerfield turbines are in, Streeter says, it’s impossible to know what their impact on surrounding communities truly will be.
That goes for property values, Streeter says, as well as aesthetics. Which explains “the gamut of reactions,” she adds. “I think that is totally normal for something that you can’t see.”
Lowell and Behold
About half a dozen wind-energy projects are operating, in construction or under development in Vermont right now. Most are earning approval from the Public Service Board despite all the objections. Often that approval comes with conditions — 42, in the case of GMP’s Kingdom Community Wind project.
In Lowell, GMP is on track to finish the 21-turbine Kingdom Community Wind development by the end of the calendar year. This year’s mild weather kept construction crews working through the winter, which is good news for the developer: In order to qualify for the production tax credits that are making the wind farm financially feasible, explains GMP spokesman Robert Dostis, blades have to be spinning by December 31 this year.
Dostis and GMP project manager Charlie Pughe are making their way up a muddy, pocked road cut into the side of Lowell Mountain. Even in Pughe’s Chevy truck it’s slow going. Dostis is at the wheel and pulls to one side of the road to let a heavy piece of equipment rumble past on its way down the road.
“It’s nice to see the progress being made,” says Dostis, glancing at the crew working on the site of the future maintenance building. Tall utility poles march up the slope of the mountain. The road passes the first spot where contentious blasting has taken place to clear the way for turbine pads and road access. Here, the dynamite cut eight or 10 feet into the rock. In other places along the ridgeline, the newly formed cliffs rise 45 feet. The clouds are rolling in, but off in the distance, just visible on a ridgeline to the southeast, the Sheffield towers rise like little matchsticks on their mountaintop.
“People hear we’re blowing up a mountain,” Dostis says, a little incredulous. The blasting isn’t pretty, but then again, he points out, neither are most construction sites. Back in the truck, winding along the ridgeline, he points to a few handmade signs visible in the trees just beyond the orange tape marking the property boundary. That, he says, was the protestors’ camp.
Dostis talks at length about the outreach GMP has done in Lowell and surrounding communities and about the widespread support the project enjoys among Lowell residents. But GMP’s Kingdom Community Wind project has drummed up the most vocal and arguably heated opposition to wind power in the state, including a dedicated band of protestors who camped on Don and Shirley Nelson’s adjacent property and disrupted construction. The standoff last fall led to the arrests of some protestors and lawsuit threats from GMP.
Protests aside, Lowell had a lot going for it as a possible site for wind development. It is one of the windiest spots in the state, based on years of meteorological data from a so-called “met tower.” A willing landowner approached GMP to pitch the project, and, after GMP’s extensive campaign to educate local residents about the project, three-quarters of the town voted in 2010 to support the wind development. Residents reaffirmed that decision two weeks ago at town meeting.
“We wanted to know if the community first and foremost wanted it,” Dostis says, adding that the company’s position at the outset was, “If the town votes no, we won’t build this.”
Lowell also had infrastructure on its side: The wind farm is located near an existing electrical substation, crucial for moving electricity. Says Lowell resident Donald Peterson: “When they listed all the things they were looking for, you went, ‘Oh, shit, I’m in the crosshairs here.’”
Still, constructing the project and transporting the power called for road building and clearing 150 acres in the process. Craftsbury resident Steve Wright — a former commissioner of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department — was open-minded at first. He recalls saying to himself, “Well, if they can get those turbines in there and get them operating without tearing up the landscape, then I may be able to be OK with this.”
But Wright soon decided that it wasn’t possible. When he considered the habitat destruction along with his own skepticism about the viability and productiveness of wind-power generation, he decided the project’s pros didn’t add up.
Wright likens ridgeline wind to the Vietnam-era policy of “burning villages in order to save them. We have been duped,” he adds. “I’m always sorry to say that, but the wind industry has become such a powerful lobby.”
Polling suggests that 90 percent of Vermonters support wind development, and 74 percent support it “strongly.” Opponents say that’s just because most people don’t know the truth of the matter; supporters say it’s a vocal minority that has dominated the wind conversation. Dig into each side’s arguments, and it’s clear that neither can agree on even the basic facts.
This is what Tom Slayton means when he points out that both sides, opponents and supporters alike, can roll out any number of studies to “prove” their points.
“I think people do make up their minds and then line up their facts, quote unquote, to reflect that mindset,” Slayton says. “It couldn’t hurt to have facts that everybody agrees on. Will we ever have those facts? I sure hope so, but I think not.”
Both sides accuse the other of providing misinformation. And sometimes, they even point to the same evidence to prop up their claims. Opponents of wind power in Vermont talk about the for-sale signs at properties surrounding a wind project in Lempster, N.H., as proof that wind turbines chase off homeowners. And yet, when GMP and a busload of Lowell residents visited Lempster, thier take was wildly different.
Andy Tetreault, who lives in Lowell, says most of the visitors were impressed. “We saw cattle grazing by the windmills totally at ease, and it sounded like a modern refrigerator running in the houses.”
Or consider a report out from the Agency of Natural Resources that suggests that the Sheffield wind farm hasn’t compromised the quality of water in nearby streams. Operations manager Andy Doak says it’s evidence of First Wind’s environmental stewardship: “We continue to prove that, no, we haven’t ruined the environment,” he says.
To the contrary, opponents — including a hydrologist hired by Vermonters for a Clean Environment — claim the state cherry-picked data from sites too far away from headwaters to be relevant.
Then there’s the tricky issue of carbon emissions. Opponents say that wind energy might not actually cut back on the carbon emissions that cause climate change, reasoning that because it’s an intermittent source of power — meaning electricity is only generated when the turbines are spinning — utilities must rely on backup sources to fill the gaps. Depending on how efficient or inefficient those sources are, they say, power can be wasted in ramping up or ramping down production.
“It’s actually quite simple,” says Wright. “Wind energy doesn’t reduce carbon emissions.”
He points to a study that suggests wind energy in Colorado and Texas has actually increased carbon dioxide emissions — but the study was conducted by Bentek, an analytics firm focusing on the natural gas and oil markets. Wind proponents say the study is nothing more than a mouthpiece for the fossil-fuel industry. They point to their own studies that show the intermittent nature of wind power isn’t a problem until about 20 percent of the grid is powered by wind.
The two sides debate a slew of other issues: noise (negligible, say proponents; a threat to quality of life, says the other side); cost (reasonable only with subsidies, according to opponents); necessity (opponents say that far more of Vermont’s carbon emissions come from automobiles and home heating than electricity generation); tourism (a nonscientific study conducted by the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club suggests wind turbines wouldn’t scare away tourists, but opponents disagree).
In the end, the argument comes down to subjective emotions and values more than quantifiable, nonpartisan facts.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” says Dostis.
Activists on both sides of the wind-energy debate wonder when — if ever — the conversation might budge.
In Lowell, supporters such as Gert and Andy Tetreault — who receive a stipend from GMP to help with outreach on the Kingdom Community Wind project — say it’s time to give the contentious debate a rest. The town has voted. Construction is underway. GMP is clearing less land than the 150 acres allowed in their permit and conserving more than 2700 acres as one of the “conditions” of the project. They’re ready to move on.
“They refuse to accept that the democratic process has taken place,” says Gert Tetreault of the project’s opponents, sipping coffee at her kitchen table with her husband. “I believe this isn’t at all about stopping Lowell. It’s about stopping the next project.”
Andy Tetreault says neighbors are still civil in Lowell, but he thinks it’s impossible to make everyone happy on this issue.
“Today, no one wants to lose,” he says.
Meanwhile, Lowell selectman Alden Warner speculates that it might just be a matter of time before wind projects are accepted — as he believes them to be — as necessary, useful and largely unobtrusive infrastructure. Warner’s mother, who is 91, remembers when the first power poles went up in the region. At the time, he says, residents disliked those, too.
“Today we don’t even think about them,” Warner says. “In my opinion, that’s exactly what’s going to happen with wind turbines. Eventually people won’t even notice that they’re there.”
He also shares the view — with Rep. Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier) and Bill McKibben — that it’s time for Vermont to “start carrying our own load.”
Warner says, “Let’s step up to the plate and sacrifice a little bit of view for the sake of doing something.”
McKibben has stated publicly he’d like to see windmills on the ridgeline of the Middlebury Gap, where he lives, if it meant knowing that he wasn’t exporting the side effects of electricity generation to some other part of the country.
Wind, solar, biomass — we need to build all of these things, Klein argues. “There is no perfect technology,” he adds. “When we begin losing sight of that, that’s when we begin getting in trouble.”
But sacrifice is a hard term to stomach for opponents on the other side of the issue — especially when they aren’t convinced that the sacrifice is meaningful. Lowell resident Peterson, for instance, is deeply bitter about the Lowell project. He watches the expansion at nearby ski area Jay Peak and is skeptical that energy produced at the Lowell site will make any dent in carbon emissions. All the wind turbines and solar panels in the world won’t make up for that waste, he says.
“I lost something that I really, really treasured,” says Peterson, who trekked along the ridge as a younger man. “I’m willing to give up stuff like that if there’s a genuine commitment to have that be part of the solution, but it’s not part of the solution.”
Wright, meanwhile, feels betrayed by the environmental community in Vermont to which he’s belonged since 1968.
“This has been deeply personal for me,” he says. “And for many of the environmental groups, or so-called environmental groups, I just believe they’re wrong and they’re making … decisions guided by financial interests or grant funding.”
There’s frustration on the other side, too.
“I can’t argue with somebody who says they don’t want to look at something. I get that. I accept that,” says lawmaker Klein. But he bristles at the other arguments: That the Public Service Board isn’t listening. That the noise will be unbearable. That bear habitat is being compromised. The proof is in the pudding, Klein says: The permitting process is rigorous and lengthy, and in Sheffield’s case it took eight years and cost an estimated $10 million.
“How much more of a time-out do people want?” Klein asks.
Big Picture, Small Town
Opponents lost the battle to keep wind turbines out of Sheffield, despite drumming up an estimated $1 million to fund the opposition. Bake sales, barbecue chicken dinners, a $75,000 allocation from the town of Sutton — in the end, it fell short, the Brouhas say. They made their arguments to the PSB, and appealed decisions for as long as they could, but when all was said and done, Carol Brouha says, “Our voices were drowned out in the process.”
The Brouhas complain that neighboring communities don’t see the same financial benefits as “receiving” towns like Sheffield and Lowell — though in Lowell’s case, GMP has set up a Good Neighbor Fund to shuttle some money into the surrounding communities. Paul Brouha says financial incentives wouldn’t erase the harm he thinks has been done in Sheffield — but it wouldn’t hurt, either. In some cases, residents from neighboring municipalities see more of the turbines than people in the towns that stand to profit from them. From the second floor of the Brouha’s Sutton home you can see the Sheffield turbines turning silently over the top of a line of trees. The structures turn gracefully, their blades slicing the air in great swoops.
Ironically, the turbines aren’t visible from the town hall in Sheffield, where a standing-room-only crowd assembled on Election Day. During the long town meeting, conversation had less to do with the role turbines may or may not play in fighting climate change than with the changes that the new wind farm could bring to a small town with few resources.
Sheffield voters went back and forth on the issue of tax relief: Should they wipe out municipal taxes altogether? Should they sock away more rainy-day cash? This, and not wind power, was the reason voters turned out in record numbers. Residents decided to allocate half of this year’s First Wind windfall to tax relief, which officials estimate will cut municipal taxes in the town by approximately 80 percent. The rest is going into a savings account.
And Aldrich? He’ll keep his selectboard seat.
In Sheffield, and in much of Vermont, the debate over large-scale wind generation comes down not to grandiose global goals but to small-power politics.
Kathryn Flagg discusses this story on “The :30” on WCAX, Channel 3, Wednesday, March 14, at 5:30 p.m.