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Kreis: Wind Power Vote

I am a fan of renewable energy – but I'm also a contrarian and an inveterate tilter at the windmill of conventional Vermont thinking. And in that latter capacity I have to salute the good people of Lowell for the vote they took on Town Meeting day.

As anyone who follows energy issues in Vermont knows, Lowell is the Northeast Kingdom community that hosts the Kingdom Community Wind project – an array of 21 wind turbines, each standing more than 400 feet tall atop the Lowell Mountain Ridgeline.

Kingdom Community wind has only been generating electricity for about 14 months, but it’s been generating litigation and controversy for much longer than that. The most recent legal tussle culminated in a decision by the Vermont Supreme Court in January on an arcane point of municipal law. At the town meeting in Lowell two years ago, a voice vote led to a decision to pass over a warrant article expressing opposition to the wind project. Was a petition for reconsideration of this article in order under the applicable statute? Yes, said the Vermont Supreme Court.

And, Yes, said the voters in Lowell, by a vote of 100 to 27, when therefore asked at this year’s town meeting whether they support the wind project that looms over their town.

According to the web site of Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s biggest electric utility and the lead owner of Kingdom Community Wind, as the result of those 21 wind turbines, quote, “ Vermonters will benefit from the lowest cost new renewable energy generated in the state.” That Is a pretty sly way of avoiding an inconvenient truth: Kingdom Community Wind sells the renewable energy certificates, or RECs, associated with its output to utilities in other New England states. And with those RECs go the bragging rights when it comes to renewable energy. That’s because Kingdom Community Wind is being used by utilities in other states to comply with those states’ requirements that utilities purchase renewable energy.

Some proponents of renewable energy in Vermont cry foul over this, pointing out that under such a regime, Vermont isn’t actually increasing its use of renewable energy – and won’t increase it until Vermont joins its neighbors in adopting a so-called renewable portfolio standard.

Maybe. But the fact is that, region-wide, the renewable portfolio standards of the other five New England states ARE leading to the development of renewable energy facilities that wouldn’t otherwise exist. So, in a sense, Lowell gets something for nothing: property tax revenue from the wind project it hosts, made possible in part by a grant from our neighbors in states like Massachusetts and Connecticut. Considered in that light, the decision of the voters in Lowell looks a lot like the kind of practical Vermont wisdom that we like to associate with our hallowed town meeting tradition.

Donald Kreis is an attorney from Norwich who specializes in cooperatives and their development. He is also a Senior Energy Law Fellow at Vermont Law School, teaching in the distance learning program. He has worked as a utility regulator in Vermont and New Hampshire and, in his spare time, writes and thinks about architecture.
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