Opposition to new wind farms in ecologically minded Vermont has come from an unusual source: environmentalists. Conservationists in the Green Mountain State have split over the prospect of building turbines on ridges, pitting those who worry about destruction of wildlife habitat and scenic views against others who believe that turbines are necessary to move the state toward renewable energy.
“You want to save the environment by building renewable energy, but in Vermont the only viable places for turbines are high-elevation ridges that have important habitat,” says Lukas Snelling, director of communications for Energize Vermont, a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes sustainable energy. “So if you build wind farms, you're actually destroying part of the environment.”
Snelling says the wide roads and massive amounts of concrete needed to install turbines would essentially industrialize sensitive mountain regions. As an alternative, Energize Vermont backs small-scale, community-energy developments, including solar panels and hydropower from existing dams. Such projects, it contends, are a better fit for Vermont's small-town nature than large-scale wind turbines.
On the other side of the debate, long-established environmental groups such as the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group favor building turbines in selected locations. If properly placed, they contend, the turbines could take advantage of reliable wind without significant effects on the environment, providing a critical alternative to fossil-fuel plants that emit carbon dioxide and other pollutants.
In a statement urging its members to support the proposed installation of a wind farm of about 20 turbines, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group declared: “There is no free lunch when it comes to turning on our lights or running our refrigerators. When we consume energy, we produce an environmental impact, and the impacts of wind power pale in comparison to those of fossil fuels and nuclear power.”
Moreover, environmentalists who support bringing turbines to Vermont point to agreements under which wind farms have said they will protect hundreds of acres through conservation easements and return the land to its natural state once the farm has been decommissioned.
Wind turbines and clouds sit atop a hill in Vermont. Local conservationists are divided over plans to erect more hilltop turbines. (Getty Images/Jake Wyman)
The situation in Vermont is not unique. A proposal to expand a West Virginia wind farm sparked a green vs. green battle in the courts over whether the turbine blades could endanger bats. And plans to build a massive offshore wind farm in a wildlife-rich section of Nantucket Sound, known as Cape Wind, has faced stiff resistance from prominent environmentalists, including Robert Kennedy Jr., who worry about effects on local communities, wildlife and the landscape. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved the project last year.
On the other hand, Midwestern ranchers who are not ordinarily associated with environmental causes have frequently embraced wind farms. Turbines are injecting money and jobs into economically depressed rural sections of the Plains, and states such as Texas, Iowa and Kansas are emerging as leading producers of wind energy.
The situation has created some unusual political alliances. For example, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, aligned himself with liberal Democrats in supporting a national renewable-energy standard last year.
Snelling doesn't object to wind energy — as long as the turbines are put in such spots as Midwestern croplands where they won't endanger sensitive wildlife habitats. But he has deep reservations about plans for about 10 wind farms in his state's picturesque Green Mountains.
“Building wind farms in the Midwest or in the West is a very different thing than building them in Vermont,” he says. “Vermont is a unique microcosm where the desire to build renewable energy in the country is hitting right up against the desire to protect natural resources.
“It's as though the need to combat climate change necessitates that we destroy part of the environment. It's just such a weird catch-22 that I can't support it.”
— David Hosansky