Friday January 4, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- A proposed moratorium on commercial wind-power development in Vermont is spurring cheers from anti-turbine activists and howls of protest from multiple environmental groups.

The possible ban has local importance: As two state senators announced their plans Thursday at a Montpelier press conference, Grafton resident Liisa Kissel was among those in the audience.

"People feel very strongly that we have gotten on the wrong path," Kissel said.

She spoke after state Sens. Robert Hartwell, a Bennington County Democrat, and Joe Benning, a Caledonia County Republican, had proposed a three-year ban on new development of commercial turbines.

They also called for a more thorough review of energy projects.

The wind-power debate, which already had flared in other parts of Vermont, caught fire in Windham County last year as a subsidiary of developer Iberdrola Renewables sought and received state permission to erect wind-testing towers in the towns of Windham and Grafton.

Depending on the weather data those towers produce, they could be the precursor to the county's first commercial wind-turbine site.

Grafton town officials have not taken a position on the matter, but Kissel has been leading a group of residents who are seeking to amend the town plan to ban industrial wind power.

She made the trip to Montpelier on Thursday to support moratorium efforts.

"We have gotten ahead of ourselves in the state of Vermont, and we should have investigated before we started installing these wind projects," Kissel said.

An Iberdrola spokesman on Thursday said the company had no comment on a possible moratorium.

But Windham town officials have fought Iberdrola's plans and have voiced support for a moratorium. On Thursday, they reiterated their view that there are many questions about the efficacy of wind power in Vermont and its potential impacts on people, property values and towns.

"These are but a few of the essential questions being ignored in our rush to build industrial-scale wind in Vermont," Windham officials said an in e-mail to the Reformer. "Answers are available, but we need time to gather the information, learn from the experience of others and guide our regulators to a fact-based framework of public policy."

State Sen. Peter Galbraith, a Townshend-based Democrat, has his own doubts about wind power's place in Vermont.

"We are basically destroying our ridgelines for no environmental gain," Galbraith said.

Galbraith said he supports his Senate colleagues' moratorium proposal. He also plans to reintroduce legislation banning turbine development on state land and requiring "affected communities" to sign off on any wind project.

That could include not only the town that would host turbines but also neighboring towns.

"We should not be putting these projects where the people who would be living next to them don't want them," Galbraith said.

He believes his bill and the moratorium effort are compatible.

"It's a collaborative approach," Galbraith said.

However, news of a potential turbine ban led eight environmental groups to issue a lengthy, joint statement condemning the two senators' proposal.

"With storms like Irene and Sandy still fresh in our minds, and 2012 having broken all sorts of records for heat, droughts and floods, this is no time to retreat from Vermont's commitment to clean energy," said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

The groups argued that "it would be irresponsible to simply ask others outside of Vermont to bear the burden of producing power for our energy needs."

"Buying power from outside Vermont means we are exporting air and water pollution and environmental damage by continuing our reliance on large-scale hydro dams, dirty coal and oil and nuclear power," said Christopher Kilian, Vermont Director for the Conservation Law Foundation.

The groups pointed out that Vermont has adopted a plan calling for 90 percent of the state's energy needs to be met by renewables by 2050. Also, they cited polls showing that a majority of residents "support the development of local renewable energy resources."

And they noted that an Energy Siting Commission recently appointed by Gov. Peter Shumlin is examining the state's energy-generation permitting process and the public's role in it.

"The independent commission is hearing from virtually all interested parties at this point," said Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. "We ought to give them a chance to do their job, which is scheduled to be completed by this April, and provide a comprehensive set of recommendations for improving how all energy facilities are sited in Vermont."

Also expressing concern about a wind moratorium were 350Vermont, Sierra Club Vermont Chapter, Citizens Awareness Network, National Wildlife Federation's Northeast Regional Center and the Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance.

In the groups' press release, Kilian characterized wind-power opposition as "the extreme voices of those who refuse to take responsibility for our energy future."

Kissel objected to that, saying those who packed Thursday's press conference in Montpelier were "a diverse group of Vermonters" who care deeply about their state.

"These are smart people," Kissel said. "These are concerned people who are good members of their communities."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.