Times Argus Editorial: Getting it right (and the need for an energy plan)

Apr 04, 2011 No Comments by

Reposted here from the Times Argus.

Published: April 3, 2011


Opponents of the wind project proposed for the Lowell Mountain range vented their frustrations last week at a hearing on Vermont’s new energy plan.

The Department of Public Service is developing an energy plan to help guide the state through a new era of energy production and consumption. More than any governor before him, Peter Shumlin has focused on the need to develop alternative sources of energy, both to promote new jobs in Vermont and to slow the rate of climate change.


The project in Lowell vividly demonstrates the need for a new plan. Green Mountain Power has proposed a large-scale wind project on a mountain ridge in Lowell that has been embraced by a majority in Lowell but denounced in emotional terms by some Lowell residents and others in nearby Albany and Craftsbury. The project would consist of 20 large wind turbines, each of which would be a major construction site, reached by a road snaking along the scenic ridge.


The project has touched on all the volatile issues surrounding wind power and divided environmentalists. Opponents say it would create visual blight, harm habitat, ruin a remote wild area, kill birds and bats, and create noise. Supporters say it would provide sustainable, carbon-free energy and taxable property for Lowell. They say the visual damage caused by wind turbines has been exaggerated.


GMP went to great pains to neutralize local opposition, meeting with Lowell residents over a period of months and offering a financial contribution to the town. Opponents call it a bribe. Residents of neighboring towns feel they have had no say.


The project is before the Public Service Board, which will decide whether to issue a certificate of public good, based on evidence presented at hearings. The board must weigh the negatives and the positives. The state Agency of Natural Resources has given the project its blessing after GMP altered its plans in order to protect bear habitat.


The new energy plan will have no bearing on the Lowell project, which is well on its way through the regulatory process. But the uproar over the proposal shows the ways that a thoroughly researched plan could be useful in the future.


One of the difficulties in considering an individual project is to know how it fits within the broader picture. Does approval of wind turbines in Lowell mean that wind turbines will be sprouting up everywhere in the Green Mountains? How much can wind be expected to contribute to Vermont’s energy mix?


A similar difficulty arises in relation to biomass. Beaver Wood Energy has proposed wood-burning electric power plants for Pownal and Fair Haven, raising questions about the carrying capacity of Vermont’s forests, the potential effect on air quality and how much biomass could potentially contribute to the state’s energy mix.


A new energy plan will be useful to the degree it provides useful information. In planning Vermont’s energy future, it will be useful to know the extent of the state’s forest resource and how much could be consumed by biomass plants without harming the woods. In our rush to replace fossil fuels, we don’t want to raze Vermont’s forests.


Similarly, utility officials acknowledge that there is a limited number of sites in Vermont where the wind is suitable for large-scale wind projects. Some of those — in Londonderry and Ira, for example — have been rejected by local residents, while others have been accepted, usually after much controversy. In the same vein, Pownal residents have put up stiff resistance against the proposed wood-burning facility, while Fair Haven has welcomed the project.


If we want to encourage the development of diverse, sustainable energy sources, a useful energy plan could help pinpoint those limited number of projects that will fit the state’s energy portfolio without steamrolling local residents. A plan could defuse conflict and encourage energy development.


The state and nation are groping toward a solution to the energy crisis. It will not come through a broad, overarching plan — the kind of cap-and-trade program that neither the U.S. Congress nor the international community has been able to embrace. It will come through the aggressive pursuit of new technologies, including especially solar power, whose economics are becoming more favorable with each passing year. By developing diverse energy sources, no single source will overrun the state — no brigades of turbines marching over the mountains or denuded mountainsides feeding energy plants. Instead, select sites — appropriate to their settings, agreeable to the local population — could all feed into the mix. A good energy plan will help us develop that mix.



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