Log Cabin Chronicles

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Chris Braithwaite publishes the Barton Chronicle, arguably the finest community newspaper in Vermont.]

Time to obfuscate, hesitate, and mumble

CHRIS BRAITHWAITE
Barton, Vermont

The preliminary Vermont state decision that wind towers don't belong at East Haven's old radar station is site specific. It lacks legs.

The argument that convinced Public Service Board hearing officer Kurt Janson is a good one. The towers of East Haven Windfarm would spoil an environment that has been the target of a multimillion-dollar effort to keep it unspoiled.

Mr. Janson got it right. But it's not an argument that can be applied to the ridges of Sheffield and Sutton, where more towers are proposed.

Those battles remain to be fought on their own terms.

But there was a phrase in Mr. Janson's 90-page decision that seems to apply more generally.

Wind power generates a contradiction between what he called "two fundamental state policies: promoting in-state renewable resources and protecting Vermont's ridgelines."

The debate about wind is difficult because so much of it rests on aesthetics; on what constitutes a beautiful view and what spoils one.

Posed against the high price of oil and gas, against the depredations of acid rain and global warming, against the intractable problem of finding a safe way to deal with nuclear waste, the idea that people would stand in the way of a promising renewable energy source because they don't like the looks (or sound) of it seems effete, perhaps elitist, maybe a little self-centered.

But there is nothing elitist, and certainly nothing new, in the idea of protecting Vermont's ridge lines. They are enshrined in Act 250, which virtually prohibits development above 2,500 feet.

Act 250 doesn't apply to power projects, though we wish it did.

But this state has a record of preserving its mountains and ridge lines from development, and it's not clear why that stance should be thrown to the wind.

As a society, we tend to be a little goofy on the subject of energy - a bit prone to fad and fashion.

A few energy crises ago, in the early 1970s, water power was the thing. Anybody who could coax a few kilowatts of power out of a stream was a public hero.

Somehow hydro has gone out of fashion. A new power dam wouldn't stand a chance in this state, and fishermen want the old ones torn down.

The Public Service Board and the Department of Public Service stood by recently while Citizens gave a damn good dam away, along with a serviceable power station.

How much can we reasonably be asked to sacrifice for wind power, if we're giving water power away?

We in the Northeast Kingdom are a few miles south of one of the world's great sources of hydroelectric power, the dams of Hydro Quebec.

When gas-generated power was so cheap, so few years ago, those terrible, overpriced contracts with Hydro Quebec foiled the Legislature's best efforts to follow the rest of the country into the new era of utility deregulation.

How could consumers go shopping for cheap power if our future was mortgaged to Hydro Quebec?

Deregulation turned out to be a terrible idea - ask anybody in California - and those contracts we tried so shamelessly to break with Hydro Quebec are looking pretty good.

Of course we want to burn all the renewable energy we can. But it's puzzling that when our power mavens talk about renewable energy, they want to exclude all the power we might buy from Hydro Quebec. Go figure.

Wind power is terribly fashionable right now. That doesn't mean it's the solution to our energy problems, or that it's a solution particularly suited to this small and beautiful state.

In Orleans County we are already extracting energy from everybody else's garbage (along with some of our own) and cow power enjoys a considerable following. Now there's a real Vermont solution.

In the meantime, wind projects depend on tax breaks and renewable energy credits to make any economic sense.

So maybe it's a good time to hold off; to fumble around like we did with deregulation, and see how this wind fad sugars off.

Our ridge lines are as precious as they are vulnerable. And wind power's advocates have yet to make a solid case for spoiling them.


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Copyright © 2006 Chris Braithwaite/Barton Chronicle/03.06