As Vermont races to become the nation’s first green-energy economy, the head of the Public Service Department says the state’s renewable energy plan is about economic matters, not global warming.
On Wednesday, the Vermont Public Service Department completed the third of five public hearings for the state’s 2015 Comprehensive Energy Plan. The 380-page document, set to be completed and adopted by Jan. 1, charts a course for Vermont to get 90 percent of its energy from renewables by 2050.
While Vermonters are struggling to see the benefit in siting hundreds of utility-scale solar and wind projects in neighborhoods and atop mountain ridgelines, the benefit most commonly associated with embracing green energy — combating global warming — is conspicuously absent from Vermont’s plan.
“I disagree with the characterization that the reason we’re doing this is to try and improve global warming,” Chris Recchia, commissioner of the Public Service Department, told Vermont Watchdog.
“It is certainly a byproduct of it, and a help, but primarily why we’re doing it is to have stable energy pricing and really secure energy resources that are renewable in our state.”
Recchia, appointed by Gov. Peter Shumlin in 2013 to lead the department responsible for regulating energy development, said Vermont is too small to make a difference in the nation’s carbon footprint. As result, the commissioner says Vermont needs to embrace an all-renewable-energy future to have a strong economy, a stable energy supply and stable energy pricing.
“If everybody else in the United States and around the world did what we’re doing, it would have a tremendous impact on climate change. The problem is we can only do what we can do,” he said.
Since Shumlin made renewable energy a top priority of the state, towns have found themselves fighting green-energy companies eager to profit from taxpayer subsidies and regulation-free land use policies.
Swanton, which is battling a proposal from Swanton Wind LLC to construct seven 500-foot wind turbines on a local ridgeline, has scheduled a Nov. 17 townwide vote to give residents a say in the matter.
“We’re definitely against it. The Selectboard, we do not support this project. We are for renewable energy if it’s the right thing for our communities, but this is not the right thing for our communities,” Swanton Selectboard Chair Dan Billado told Vermont Watchdog.
“These towers are 100 feet or more taller than any turbines in New England — they’re 499 feet. That equates to 50-story structures on a ridgeline that’s already a 345-foot ridgeline above the lake. Tell me anywhere in Vermont where we have 50-story structures.”
On the year’s windy days, the project will provide power to an estimated 7,800 homes. Despite that benefit, Billado said people in the town are worried about the project’s negative effect on wildlife, public health, water quality, property values and aesthetics.
“We already know that windmills kill birds and bats. It’s devastating on that, not to mention the rest of the wild animals — deer, bear, coon, fox, you name it,” he said. “It drives them away. They say they’ll come back, but nobody can give us an answer when.”
At the town’s Tuesday night Selectboard meeting, more than 50 residents met with Recchia to express concerns about the turbines. According to Billado, when the board asked for a show of hands to see how many people opposed the project, all but five people threw up their hands.
“The five people for it were Mr. Belisle, his wife, his lawyer, and, I believe, his sister and brother-in-law that were there — they’re the developers.”
Billado said the vote could have as big a turnout as the Oct.1 vote in Irasburg, which saw residents fill Town Hall to overflowing to vote 274-9 against 500-foot windmills on the Kidder Hill ridgeline west of the village center. Although non-binding, such townwide votes send a loud message that developers need to go someplace else.
Vermont Watchdog asked Recchia if towns could be expected to sacrifice their landscapes for a plan that offers negligible environmental benefits and significant environmental damage.
“It is not a huge sacrifice compared to what the people of West Virginia have been dealing with for 100 years in terms of coal mining and mountaintop removal and a variety of other things. It just is not the same scale,” he said.
For environmentally minded Vermonters, Recchia’s perspectives may seem out of touch.
“To say, ‘OK, it’s really about having stable energy prices; it isn’t about having some sort of impact — even local — on global climate change,’ you’re missing the boat with me,” said Michael Keane, a Selectboard member in the Town of Bennington.
“Prices are always going to go up and down. There’s not going to be any absolute control of prices. … If all we’re thinking of is stable prices, we’ve let ourselves be horse-traded in sort of a Wild West situation.”
The “Wild West” in Bennington includes a plan to clear-cut 27 acres of forest for a two-plot solar farm in the Apple Hill residential area along Route 7, within eyeshot of the town’s welcome center.
The project’s developer, New York City-based Allco Renewable Energy, angered residents when the CEO criticized a Bennington woman who decided to intervene against the project due to aesthetic and procedural concerns. In 2010, the CEO himself campaigned to stop an offshore wind farm from being sited in Nantucket Sound near his summer home in Martha’s Vineyard.
In August, the Bennington Selectboard voted against the arrays due to “the inevitable damage to environmental, historical, safety, visual, and aesthetics of the surroundings.” Two weeks ago, board members sent the Public Service Board a letter saying its decisions “appeared to ride roughshod” over the concerns of the people of Bennington.
Recchia may be listening to towns’ complaints. He said he would oppose “random applications being submitted by developers that don’t have any relationship to what towns and communities want.” He also said he would work to help residents “be part of the solution and really engage in the process.”
Going forward, Recchia said the department plans to enlist all regional planning commissions in the state to conduct smart energy planning with communities in the upcoming year.
Swanton needs answers sooner rather than later, according to Billado.
“When they start blasting ridgelines, what’s that do to surrounding wells? You’re fracking the ground (and) breaking up flows of water that feed people’s wells. What’s that going to do to everybody’s drinking water? Nobody knows. They say they have to do studies,” he said.
According to Keane, if the state’s energy plan is about economic issues, Vermonters need to rethink the real benefits of moving forward.
“If we’re doing this for stable energy prices in the year 2020 or 2030, then let people know that. Let’s disabuse them of the goodwill intentions that they have to have a benefit on the environment,” he said.
“If, in fact, we are not having some sort of useful impact on the environment that we can either have bragging rights about or be thought of as a model for other political entities, then what the hell are we doing?”
Contact Bruce Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org