Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Logo of The Middlebury Campus
Thursday, Aug 18, 2022

Wind Energy Debate Explodes Across Vermont

On Aug. 6, six demonstrators were arrested in Lowell, Vt. at the site of the Kingdom Community Wind Project. These six demonstrators, members of a fifty-person protest group assembled to voice their disapproval of commercial wind-farming, bringing the total number of arrests made at this site to 15. This project, an alternative energy generation venture in the process of constructing 21 wind turbines along a three-mile section of ridgeline along Lowell Mountain, has been the site of a half dozen large protests and demonstrations in the last two years.

The Kingdom Community Wind project is not unique in Vermont; similar wind farms adorn the skylines of Sheffield, Georgia, Milton and even Middlebury. The field adjacent to the College's recycling center is home to a 10-kilowatt turbine that is a feature of the College's carbon neutrality initiative.

Opinions about the wind turbine vary on campus.

Steven Zatarain '15 feels that Middlebury's wind turbine is "a façade" that "gives tour guides something to talk about."

Director of Arts, Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Associate Curator of Ancient Art Pieter Broucke is "really in favor" of wind turbines, which he believes can flourish in Vermont's "delicate and venerable landscape."

Across the state, wind farms like the Kingdom Community Wind Project are being sharply criticized for having what opponents claim to be a disruptive impact on the landscape. The situation in Lowell has developed into a particularly contested dispute.

The saga unfolding in courtrooms and on mountaintops across Orleans County began in the spring of 2010 when Green Mountain Power, the Vermont Electric Cooperative and the Vermont Electric Power Company, Inc. submitted a proposal to build a wind farm on the Lowell Mountain Ridgeline and install 16.9 miles of transmission equipment in the towns of Lowell, Westfield and Jay. On May 31 of the following year, the Public Service Board of the state of Vermont approved "either 20 or 21 wind turbines and associated transmission and interconnection facilities ... (to) be sited along the Lowell Mountain ridgeline in Lowell, Vt."

The Public Service Board's decision ignited a contentious debate over the merits of wind energy. So far, construction has been fraught with setbacks due to the many protests that have been staged within the last year: two Sterling College students were arrested while protesting on Nov. 12, six demonstrators were arrested for trespassing on Dec. 5th, two arrests were made and state troopers were called when a group of 80 to 150 protestors blockaded Vermont Route 100 to delay the arrival of turbine components in July and six of about thirty demonstrators were arrested at a protest staged on Aug. 6.  These disruptive incidents have precipitated a statewide dialogue about the  benefits and drawbacks of wind energy.

Proponents of wind energy point to the dual economic and environmental value of wind farms as the primary reason why wind turbines should be installed across the state. These advocates believe that wind farms will economically benefit the state by creating jobs, tax revenue and a stable long-term source of inexpensive energy.

"It's a very good symbol of the promise of renewables," said Middlebury's Director of Environmental Studies and Professor of Economics Jonathan Isham. Isham believes that "taking advantage of new technologies and economies of scale" will enable wind energy to be a financially viable option for the state of Vermont. Isham also pointed to other examples of successful wind energy across the country as signs that wind energy can find a niche in Vermont.

"The rise of wind power in Iowa is a sign of the promise of wind," said Isham.

Green Mountain Power Corporate Spokesperson Dorothy Schnure compared the development of wind energy infrastructure to home ownership in what she called a "rent vs. own model." She said that having wind energy facilities in Vermont will provide long-term benefits despite initial financial hurdles because future contract renewals will be avoided by keeping production local.

Supporters of the wind energy movement in Vermont also think that wind farms are an appropriately "green" approach to energy creation. Advocates believe that wind energy is an environmentally responsible alternative form of energy generation that aligns with Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development (SPEED), a piece of legislation passed in 2005 that requires 10 percent of Vermont's energy load to be provided by new sources of renewable energy.

According to Schnure, "the Vermont legislature has made it clear that [they] want a ... higher proportion of our energy mix to come from renewable energy sources."

The Kingdom Community Wind project emphasizes the project's "low potential for significant environmental impact" and says the completed wind farm will "reduce the need to import power and will reduce pollution in (the) wider community."

Schnure went on to say that the project represents a form of renewable energy generation that is "low cost, low carbon and very reliable."

Critics of the development of large-scale wind-energy generation systems believe that the host of deleterious effects of wind turbines with respect to aesthetics, environment, noise levels and cost efficiency make wind energy a poor choice for the state of Vermont. Environmentalists are furious that the turbines and their associated transmission and interconnection facilities destroy dozens of miles of natural landscapes without significantly reducing emissions.

Lisa Linowes, exectuve director of Vermont's Industrial Wind Action (IWA) group, says that the label "renewable" often encourages members of the public to accept an environmentally degrading source of energy that is "extraordinarily expensive relative to other forms of generation."

"How could anyone find a problem with wind energy?" asked Linowes. "Out of the gate a lot of people just accept that renewables are wonderful [even though] there is no way in Vermont or in New England that wind energy [could] pay ... for itself."

Citizens living in Lowell, Westfield, Jay and neighboring towns decry the turbines for their obtrusive presence, and, as the multitude of arrests suggest, they are not afraid to stand up for their opinions. Linowe believes this is evidence that the anti-wind protestors will not rest until their voices are heard.

"It's a big step for a doctor in an emergency room, [...] one of the people that got arrested – to stand up and to be so outraged about the Lowell mountain projects that he stands up and he would allow himself to get arrested," said Linowes. "People don't do that."

The issue remains divisive, however, and protests continue. Although opponents continue to clamor for an end to the construction of Kingdom Community Wind, Schnure insists that the 21 turbines will soon be powering 24,000 Vermont homes. According to recent estimates, the Kingdom Community Wind project will be completed by December. While construction crews race to erect the final few turbines on the ridge of Lowell Mountain, environmentalists, economists and engineers across the state of Vermont are sure to be investigating other alternative energy sources.

"In the end, Vermont should aspire to have a portfolio of renewables, including wind and solar," said Isham. Vermonters seem to agree that investment in multiple renewable energy sources is positive, and the wind energy debate seems to be a catalyst for discussion of these new sources of renewable energy.

"Wind can be effective," agreed Visiting Lecturer in Architecture Andrea Kerz-Murray, the lead faculty advisor for the Middlebury Solar Decathlon Team, "but [it] is not enough on its own [...] The most effective approach to clean energy in a place like Vermont has to be a varied one."

"Just like investments, you don't want to put all your money in one stock. It's the same with energy," said Schnure. "There is a lot of value in having a diverse mix."

The increased interest in the environmental and economic landscape of tomorrow that has resulted from the wind energy debate will benefit all residents of Vermont.

"The high profile debate and the actions that have been taken will drive people to look deeper, to peel away some of the layers to that onion," said Linowes.

With both corporate entities like Green Mountain Power and advocacy groups like the IWA both striving to develop a varied energy portfolio for the state, the future of sustainable energy in Vermont remains bright.