Vermonters Carefully Weigh The Pros And Cons Of Renewables

BY ON March 17, 2014

image of wind turbines

Vermont is one of the greenest and healthiest states in the nation. Our roads are free of billboards, and you won’t find a McDonald’s in our capital city, Montpelier.

These things didn’t happen by accident. Vermonters are generally a fiercely independent, community-minded bunch — and they don’t like to be rushed into making important decisions.

Vermont towns govern by town meeting. This is one of the last vestiges of a times gone by, where the  townspeople literally meet to discuss and decide town business. Before voting, each item in the budget is carefully discussed, weighed and considered. This can be intense and stressful, but for the most part, it is a respectful tradition that works. My neighbor and friend, Susan Clark, co-wrote a book about this kind of deliberate community-based decision-making, called Slow Democracy. Susan also happens to be our humorous, wise and knowledgeable town meeting moderator.

So when I read an ABC article titled: Vt. Loves Renewable Energy, Except When It Arrives, I thought it may be more about the process and less about the energy. Let me explain…

According to the article, Vermonters have resisted three recent renewable projects:

  1. a wind-power project in Lowell
  2. a wind farm in northeastern Vermont
  3. a proposed wood-burning power plant in southern Vermont

While these projects are unique in their local context, I can say that Vermonters value full participation in decision-making, especially when it is about the use of public or town land.

Every energy source comes with downsides, but the downsides to renewables are significantly less than dirty than the alternative – fossil fuels, that can greatly harm public health, contribute to global warming, and pollute our environment. The downsides to large scale wind energy pale in comparison, but they are very real for these communities. Considerations such as view sheds, impact on local communities both human and wildlife, and carbon footprints are challenges to large scale wind and solar projects.

“Critical to a successful project is working with communities to develop a project that not only creates cheap, clean energy but also benefits the local community,” Christy Omohundro, director of eastern state policy for the American Wind Energy Association, said in an email.

Key phrase here is, “benefits the local community.” Too many times communities have given away their land — whether it is to large scale retailers, or to natural gas companies, they face unintended consequences down the road. A thoughtful and slow approach led by the community not only makes sense, but will yield the best project.

Meanwhile, Vermont has taken the lead in another area of renewable energy. Vermont leads the nation in solar jobs. According to Vermont Digger:

“The Solar Foundation released an annual report Monday that ranked the Vermont No. 1 in the nation for solar jobs per capita. The state added nearly 1,000 solar jobs in 2013, totaling about 1,300, according to the foundation’s website.”

With rebates and incentives for going solar for family residences, commercial and industrial businesses, farms, schools, builders and developers, as well as local and state governments and a commitment to powering the state with renewable energy, Vermont has made a serious long term commitment to clean and renewable energy.

While the ABC article makes Vermonters seem hypocritical about renewables, I think it is more of a cautionary tale to all interested in large scale renewable projects. It makes sense to move slowly, engage the public in sharing information, and create forums for concerns, involvement, and decision-making about all energy projects — while emphasizing the importance of renewable energy for powering our children’s future.

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TOPICS: Renewable Energy