Justine Cook: ‘The Big Short’ in Vermont

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Justine Cook of Dorset.

Yes, we have to fight climate change. The question is how? The Legislature instituted a “90 percent by 2050” mandate that requires the state to convert to 90 percent renewable electric for all our energy needs.

Millions of federal taxpayer dollars are awarded in subsidies to Green Mountain Power, the Canadian company, to build industrial wind-power installations on our ridgelines with the blessing of our Legislature and the governor-appointed Public Service Board. Individual homeowners, however, receive a maximum of $2,000 to make their homes energy efficient. Without attacking conservation first (and heating buildings accounts for 40 percent of Vermont’s carbon footprint, as opposed to 4 percent for electric usage), we’re pouring renewable energy into the proverbial sieve.

The 2050 mandate also doesn’t include our longstanding contracts to purchase a third of our renewable electric power from Hydro Quebec. Shumlin’s administration says we shouldn’t be dependent on Canada for our power, yet GMP is Canadian.

Renewable energy is land intensive. In Bennington County, the Bennington County Regional Commission has drafted requirements for our county’s renewable energy contribution — 4 percent of Vermont’s total projected demand. In our county alone, we’ll need 700 acres of land for solar; we’ll have 10 industrial-scale wind turbines on a few hundred acres of ridgeline; biomass will double to nearly 100,000 acres of wood to burn; and hydro stays the same because the Legislature doesn’t want more dams. By 2050, tens of thousands of acres of Vermont land are going to be used to generate and transmit the remaining 96 percent of renewable electric. And lest there be a hope it’s Vermont businesses benefitting, it’s not.

Take the recent example of the publicly owned George Aiken wilderness. Iberdrola, a Spanish company, is bulldozing federal forestland to install 15 industrial wind turbines to generate electricity that GMP, our Canadian electric monopoly, will then sell to out-of-state polluters as renewable energy credits (REC), sacrificing black bear habitat along the way. A REC isn’t actual energy. It’s a certificate that the power plant has produced a certain amount of renewable energy. The REC certificate is then sold, even if the energy is not used anywhere! A field of pinwheels would accomplish the same as turbines the size of the Statue of Liberty in the soon-to-be flattened national forest.

Surely, the sacrifice of our native species, our land, our ridgeline headwaters and our communities should not be in vain.


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We are destroying Vermont’s resources to “save the planet,” and the utilities are happily profiting from a new revenue stream. In a final twist, dig a bit deeper and you run up against the unresolved, knotty debate over whether wind turbines are even carbon neutral. Every turbine requires a massive outlay of fossil fuel to build and install, and every turbine must be backed up by fossil fuel because the wind is intermittent and when it’s not blowing, there’s no electric power. This may change as storage technology improves, but we’re not there yet.

Chris Recchia, commissioner of the Public Service Department, admitted last October that Vermont’s 2050 mandate isn’t meant to improve global warming. Then what are we doing this for?

We are at a critical crossroads and voters need politically independent and creative thinkers who will investigate every option, ideally local, such as the micro-hydro dam that was built by the Carthusian monks and produces enough excess power to cover all of Burr and Burton Academy’s electric. But because Vermont has allowed GMP an 80 percent monopoly, we are at the mercy of a foreign company whose profits depend upon selling Vermont-made power to the rest of the New England grid. This is colonization being promoted as green energy. Worst of all, there’s no reliable measure of how much renewable energy is even used versus how much is sold as theoretical, showpiece energy in the form of REC certificates to fossil-fuel polluters.

Surely, the sacrifice of our native species, our land, our ridgeline headwaters and our communities should not be in vain. We need to jettison this corrupt paradigm that presumes corporations will solve our energy problems if only we keep feeding them incentives on the backs of the taxpayers and our environment.

Where is the compassion and safety net for the people whose homes and farms next to those wind power plants plummet in value? Where is the job training and safety net for folks who’ll lose their livelihoods when Vermont goes petroleum free by 2050? What happens to our local Dorr and Haskins fuel dealer workers? What happens to the Vermonters who can’t afford to give up oil and convert their boilers to electric? And has anyone talked to the elderly on fixed incomes about their electric rates?

If the Democratic Party wins the governor’s seat in this election, Vermont will be turned into a profit machine for electric energy. There will be no balance of power to stop its large-scale renewable-power-plant vision because money, not energy is really at stake. Who, other than the wealthy, will be able to live on the land that’s left?


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