Monday February 25, 2013

I don't think I've met anyone who is opposed to the concept of developing renewable energy. Shifting away from the use of fossil fuels makes a lot of sense. They pollute our environment, cause climate change, and there is a finite supply. However, siting some forms of renewable generation -- wind, for one -- raises questions, and the issues of process and local control.

When I returned to Montpelier in January, I was concerned to hear stories from my colleagues who represent the Northeast Kingdom, Republicans and Democrats alike. They told me of constituents who had originally supported the development of wind now regretting it because of debilitating health effects.

In testimony to the Senate, James Rademacher, MD, a radiologist at Rutland Regional Medical Center (RRMC) with a degree in chemical engineering, described his concern for human health as a result of "infrasound." He states, "Infrasound does not affect humans and animals in the same way audible noise does. It will not damage ears and cause people to go deaf. It does have an effect on the balance function of the inner ear. Infrasound has potential harmful affects through its seismic vibratory effects." He goes on to say that not everyone is bothered in the same way.

Several people testifying reported sleep disturbance, sleep deprivation, and resulting depression. Sen. Bob Hartwell, chair of Senate Natural Resources, told me about testimony taken from a number of witnesses.


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One couple, with the resources to do so, has abandoned their home. Not so fortunate is a young couple with children, who are trapped in their home with symptoms that are causing the family great distress. A man suffering from sleep disturbance went on vacation for three weeks and the symptoms disappeared - when he returned, so did the symptoms. It is clear there are unanticipated side effects that have appeared since the turbines started working.

It seems that we lack the process necessary for properly vetting these projects. This is demonstrated by the fact that there has been a rush in the last few years to develop wind projects, several have already been built, and it is just recently (Oct. 2012) that the Vermont Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission was appointed to "survey best practices for siting approval." It seems the cart has been before the horse.

There are those who fervently believe that wind is a part of the answer to Vermont's electricity future, and it may be in some locations. This is why I have been reluctant to sign on to a moratorium. At the same time, we should remember that 97 percent of our electricity comes from non-fossil fuel sources. In fact, our carbon footprint is primarily the result of home heating and transportation.

Perhaps, focusing on thermal efficiency would make the most sense as we try to stem the tide on climate change. Every house we tighten up creates local jobs, stimulates the economy, keeps Vermonters warmer, lowers costs, and stops heating the outdoors. Dr. Rademacher from RRMC opines that the Legislature's thermal efficiency program would be much more cost effective at reducing carbon dioxide than one wind project in the Northeast Kingdom.

When the conversation about wind began in Windham, I met with the company lobbyist and the project developer. At the end of the meeting, I asked what would happen if the people of the Town of Windham did not want the project in our town. I was assured that the company would not proceed. I have asked the same question twice more and been told the same thing. This may seem naïve on my part, but in Montpelier, one's word is one's bond and if someone does not tell the truth, their credibility is shot, at least for me.

The question arises as to what kind of control small towns have in these situations. Do our Town Plans (and don't mistake Town Plans for municipal bylaws), dutifully worked on and renewed every five years, go out the window in these instances? What chance does a small town with a budget of $600,000 per year have against a large multi-national company with deep pockets and well-paid lawyers? If experience is any guide, even the state of Vermont has struggled when corporations go to court.

Rep. Tony Klein, chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee believes that once a company has presented their detailed plan including the number and location of turbines, the financial benefits to the town, etc., that town should have the right to vote on whether the project gets built.

As one of my constituents who favors wind said recently, "The wind will always be there. Why not take the time to make sure we are doing things right?"

What is needed is a new process that works toward our goal of a fossil fuel free future; determines the best way to achieve that goal taking into consideration human health, the environment, and other factors; and respects the right of local Vermonters to control their future in their own homes.

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee.