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December 27, 2012

Voices from the Energy Debate — Looking Back on 2012 (Part One)

Wind-cover

What a year 2012 was for energy development in Vermont: Controversy swirled around projects both large and (relatively) small. Opposition to the construction of a 21-turbine project on the Lowell Mountains drove some protestors to civil disobedience, and prompted a few arrests. Watching the turbines rise on the Northeast Kingdom ridgeline prompted dismay in somepride in others — and no shortage of opinions and headlines all around.  

For this two-part post, Seven Days went back to some of the big players in the energy debate — opponents and proponents, citizen activists and wind developers — for their perspectives on a busy, sometimes tumultuous year. What did 2012 mean for energy development in Vermont — and what might 2013 bring?

Today we hear from the more outspoken critics of recent energy developments. We'll be back tomorrow with more voices. 

Lukas Snelling, director of Energize Vermont

"This was the year that a lot of Vermonters started to recognize where their electricity came from, and became active in making decisions about where they’d like to see their future energy come from. That goes well beyond the wind issue. In a lot of ways, 2012 was the first year when the renewable energy movement hit the road running. ...The ability to have a meaningful conversation hasn’t yet caught up to the number of people who are actively engaging — but I think it will. The more the merrier."

Annette Smith, director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment

"What I’ve seen happen in the last year is more evidence of the polarization between those who believe we have to build as much wind as possible, and those who are fighting for the mountains and the belief that the wind issue is not going to solve our problems. I’ve been working on this wind issue for three and a half years, and it’s only this year that we’ve seen both sides on panels. I view this as progress. I think we’re making progress. [Sometimes the discussions are] painful … but for the last couple of years we couldn’t even have the discussions. ...As more and more people find their voice on this issue, I think it is moving in the direction of questioning why we’re rushing to build the technology in areas of the state that in the last 50 years has been considered sacred.

"Looking forward, I’m hopeful that we’ll finally be able to get some facts and move forward in a way that’s sensible. ... As long as we’re having this dishonest conversation, we’re not moving forward. The one piece of hope is that the former public service commissioner, Liz Miller … is going to be the governor’s chief of staff. Maybe she can insert some sense into all of this. We need a much more strategic approach to tackling the areas in which we can make change in Vermont. ... I think the other piece of this that we need to start talking about that we haven’t been talking about is reducing consumption. It frustrates me because I live off-grid. My carbon footprint is half of that of the average home. ... The whole idea that we’re going to save the planet by going out and buying more stuff ... it’s just ass backward. Let’s look at how we’re living, and ratchet it down a few notches. I can tell you from firsthand experience, it doesn’t require a whole lot to do it. It doesn't require a lot of sacrifices."

Chris Braithwaite, publisher of the Barton Chronicle

"What pleases me at the end of a pretty ridiculous year is that Dr. Ron Holland's analysis (.docx) seems to be getting some traction. [Editor's note: Holland, an Irasburg emergency room physician, contends that wind projects will not reduce overall fossil fuel consumption and questions wind energy's cost effectiveness.] That’s profoundly important. It didn’t prevail in the Lowell Mountain case, but what I’m hearing around the state is that people are looking at some of the issues that he raised. ...Wind energy, as everybody now realizes, is pretty expensive. It’s expensive even if you count things like the sale of renewable energy credits and this federal investment tax credit. ... Vermont’s real carbon output is in home heating, transportation, things like that — where you might get a lot more bang for your buck. But going after electric generation, you’re reducing a very small number, and that’s expensive and kind of stupid.

"What I hope to see happening, very much, is the opposition that was centered around Lowell, which was really very sophisticated, obviously very determined, is really going to affect the debate around the state. I think you see that happening already. The idea that these things can be respectably challenged, that you’re not just an idiot or a — what’s the term? — a NIMBY if you oppose, but that there are solid economic grounds to challenge it — I think that’s been established. And I think it’s going to slow down the reflexive response of too many people."

Steve Wright, Craftsbury Common resident

"We’ve made huge progress, I think, in having the populous come to a better understanding of what an appropriate energy policy would be for Vermont. Specifically, excluding high-altitude ridgeline mountaintop wind turbines. I think we’re moving to a place where eventually this state will decide that we have enough, and that there’s no need — in fact it would be a negative balance — to continue to put turbines on ridgelines. We’re pleased with that. Obviously we have a lot of work to do in the legislature, and in other areas as well. But we now have vehicles that we didn’t have before, and we have a great upsurge in people who are interested in these issues.

"Of course, we lost a couple of mountains in the process, and that’s tragic. But for me personally, my situation here [close to the Lowell turbines] serves as a reminder to me every day to keep pushing that rock up the hill. It’s really been remarkable, quite frankly. Our folks up here ...sad is such an inadequate word here. Folks here feel that the tearing up the Lowell mountains was and is a tragedy, and will continue to be a reminder of bad decision making. That’s an albatross that Green Mountain Power will have to wear. ...We may lose the mountains, but we won’t fail in helping to be a part of a more effective energy policy in Vermont.

"[What do I want in] 2013? First, a moratorium on new wind construction. Secondly, some creative and progressive recommendations — strong recommendations — from the energy siting commission. And the developing political will to move forward on having a more effective energy policy, both relative to effective climate change action and energy supply. The issue of climate change action and affordable reliable energy supply are the two dominate things in my thinking these days. From the beginning, I think we have been miscast in many situations as climate deniers, but over the two and half years now, or more, that we’ve been working on this particular issue, I think we’ve established that we have some scientific credibility and are responsible citizens, and are not just a bunch of yahoos yelling at the sky."

Illustration by Kim Scafuro.

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