Who is really green? Environmentalists in Vermont fight over renewable mandates

GREENER THAN THOU: Renewable mandates and a goal to have Vermont generate 90 percent of all of its energy by renewable sources by 2050 have run into a surprising source of criticism — some environmental organizations.

GREENER THAN THOU: Renewable mandates and a goal to have Vermont generate 90 percent of all of its energy by renewable sources by 2050 have run into a surprising source of criticism — some environmental organizations.

By Rob Nikolewski │ Watchdog.org

It’s green versus green in the Green Mountain State.

Tensions have flared in Vermont, home to legislators and policy groups who like touting their environmental bona fides.

The flash point is the state’s renewable energy requirements insisting state utilities derive 75 percent of their electric power from renewable sources by 2032 and a non-legislated goal of generating a whopping 90 percent of all Vermont’s energy from renewables by 2050.

“The state’s environmental program has divided the environmental community,” said Mark Whitworth, executive director of the renewable advocacy group Energize Vermont, who has a litany of complaints about the mandates, ranging from how the requirements may alter the state’s landscape to charges that communities have been shut out of the process.

Even the mandates’ chief proponent in the Vermont Legislature admits there’s tension.

“There’s a real argument (about) what the future should be,” said Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier.

The 75 percent requirement for electricity coming from renewable energy passed overwhelmingly in the most recent legislative session, sailing through the state House of Representatives in a 121-24 vote and the state Senate, 22-6. Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, signed the bill into law in June.

But that hasn’t quieted critics of the mandate — as well as the much more ambitious 90 percent goal, which, by its very scope, will force policymakers to find a way to heat homes in the notoriously cold Vermont winters and power cars and trucks with renewable sources.

“You say we want to have 90 percent renewables in the state of Vermont by 2050,” said Rob Roper, president of the state’s free-market think tank, Ethan Allen Institute. “Everybody says, oh, that’s great. We’re doing our part to save the environment. Nobody is asked the question, either in the committee rooms or in the press: What is the real cost? How much money is this going to cost and what is the effect is this going to be on the landscape?”

The fact that a free-market group doesn’t like the mandates is not surprising, but what raises eyebrows is that a couple of environmental groups don’t like them either.

“My organization opposed the bill,” Whitworth told Watchdog.org. “Not because we oppose renewable energy but because Vermont has done the easy part of the job and hasn’t done the hard part of the job. The easy part of the job is defining requirements. But they haven’t dealt with the siting and operational standards.”

Energize Vermont worries that in order to meet the renewable mandates, the state will cut down forests to

Photo from Flickr Commons MORE WIND: Renewable energy requirements in Vermont will lead to the construction of more wind farms in the state.

Photo from Flickr Commons
MORE WIND: Renewable energy requirements in Vermont will lead to the construction of more wind farms in the state.

install solar panels and erect more wind turbines along ridgelines.

Whitworth also says the three members of the Public Service Board — appointed by Vermont’s governor to serve staggered, six-year terms — will run roughshod over local concerns when the board makes decisions on public utilities.

“It totally ignores what a municipality might want,” Whitworth said. “Land use questions have now become very important. Where do you want your 25 acres of solar panels? Do you want to allow agricultural lands converted to electricity production? How do 25 acres of solar panels fit in with the aesthetic vision that a town has established for itself?”

Klein acknowledges the Public Service Board “can trump local opposition because the certificate of public good is issued for the good of the entire state,” but said the board has been in place since the 1970s.

“It’s only been now that people have been using it as an excuse to fight something they don’t want to look at,” Klein told Watchdog.org in a telephone interview.

The new energy goals are “ambitious and it’s going to require the development of a lot of wind and a lot of solar in the state,” Klein said. “But that’s what we want.”

Energize Vermont and other opponents especially don’t like the prospect of constructing more wind farms along the state’s mountain ridges. Whitworth describes it as “industrial wind development” that damages forests and their ecoystems, while marring the landscape.

“We have a limited number of ridgelines that are ecologically sensitive and they’re visible from everywhere,” Whitworth said.

“We have ski areas that do a whole lot more marring of ridgelines than windfarms,” Klein said.

Klein points out the renewable standards have drawn support from a range of other green groups, including the Vermont Natural Resources Council, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and Renewable Energy Vermont.

But the head of another environmental group came out against the renewables bill when it was before the Legislature.

“This bill is more of the same,” Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, testified in February, saying it “perpetuates the disconnect between utilities/rates and consumers” and later calling it a “shell game.”

One of the targets of Smith’s sharpest criticism is the fact Vermont utilities can purchase lower-value credits from outside sources, such as Hydro-Quebec in Canada, as part of meeting the renewable requirements while selling higher-value wind and solar credits.

“What really disturbs me is that they have set up an endless gold mine for (financiers) and developers to profit off of Vermont’s resources, our landscape, our aesthetics, the people who live here, and give this illusion that we’re making all this progress on renewable energy when we have absolutely no right to claim any of the renewable attributes for all of these projects that we’re sacrificing our state for,” Smith told Watchdog.org.

There have also been signs of locals bristling at some of the state’s renewable directives.

Members of the board of selectmen in New Haven, Vermont have been frustrated about what they say is a lack of municipal control over the growth of solar arrays that exceed 300 kilowatts. In April, the board announced it is challenging the Public Service Board in court.

“This could significantly impact the development of solar,” New Haven Selectman Doug Tolles told the Addison County Independent. “This is somewhat of a test case.”

Some residents in the town of Charlotte have complained about the construction of “industrial solar” projects. The town’s energy committee endorsed in February what Whitworth called the “Rutland Resolution,” calling for more local input for all energy generation plans.

Supporters say the renewable energy mandates are an important step towards tackling climate change, predicting a cut of 15 million metric tons in greenhouse gas emissions. 

But Whitworth doubts those claims, as well as predictions Vermont ratepayers will save upwards of $275 million.

“If we industrialize wildlife habitat and obstruct wildlife corridors then we’re signing a death notice of large numbers of species,” Whitworth said. “And we’re doing it on a bet that what we’re doing actually reduces greenhouse gas emissions.”

Roper thinks more opposition will spring up, especially as the 75 percent electricity mandate comes closer to being enacted Jan. 1, 2017.

“You’ve got different environmental philosophies,” Roper said. “One is, don’t build anything anywhere near anybody and preserve all the open land and save all the animals. And they’re very much opposed to this sort of industrialization of the Vermont landscape. Then you’ve got the ‘save the climate from global warming’ crowd and they’re basically willing to sacrifice Vermont on the altar of global warming.”

“I think the point is that Vermont, and nowhere, cannot remain a museum piece,” Klein said.

“Power is something that we all need, it’s something that we all want. And for too long, people have been able to have the luxury of flipping the light switch and having the power come on and have no idea where their power has come from … It’s the responsible thing to do, No. 1, to make sure the power that we use comes from the cleanest source that we can get it from.”

“There are people who think that we have to save the planet and if that mountain has to go, it has to go,” Whitworth said. “And then there are those of us who think that the most important response to climate change that we can make is the preservation of our wildlife habitat.”

“It’s too bad we’re in this situation where we’re in this divide,” said Smith. “There’s been tremendous damage to the trust in government in Vermont.”