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How Will The Ridgeline Wind Debate Impact Vermont's Race For Governor?

A simulated photo shows the view from Windham of a proposed wind project. The debate over siting renewable energy projects like this one has become a flashpoint in Vermont's gubernatorial campaign.

The debate over siting renewable energy projects has become one of the major policy contrasts between the gubernatorial candidates.

The Republican candidate, Phil Scott, says he would stop ridgeline wind development, and he wants to give towns more say over where turbines are built.

Sue Minter, the Democrat, supports wind energy, and she says a new state law that gives towns a voice in the planning process should be given some time to see how it works.

And in what's looking like a close race between the candidates, every vote could carry weight.

Liisa Kissell was born in Finland, and she's been a U.S. citizen for about 15 years. And over that period, when she's voted in national and state elections, she says her candidates have traditionally leaned to the left.

"It felt to me that the Democratic Party represented the values that I believed in," Kissell says. "You know. I come from the Nordic part of Europe, and we believe in social fairness and compassion and a kind of democratic society."

But Kissell now lives in Grafton, and she's been an outspoken opponent of the industrial wind project that developers want to build in her town.

During this campaign, Phil Scott told VPR that he would "not rule out the possibility of some sort of executive order to stop this from happening."

So on Election Day, in Vermont's race for governor, Kissell says she'll be casting a rare vote for a Republican.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Liisa Kissell points to a ridge in Grafton where she says wind turbines could be built if a 24-turbine project is approved. Kissell, who says she usually votes for Democrats, will be supporting Phil Scott because of his stance on wind.

"Phil Scott has been very clear, and he has said that he would stop industrial wind development in Vermont," she says. "And so 2016 is the year I am making my decision solely on this local issue."

All politics is local, and if you live in Grafton, Windham or Swanton, where developers are eyeing ridgelines for wind turbines, then energy siting might be a game changer when considering who should be elected as Vermont's next governor.

But Lauren Hierl, who's the political director for Vermont Conservation Voters, wonders how the issue is playing out beyond the potential shadows of industrial wind turbines.

In a VPR poll conducted this summer, 56 percent of those polled said they would support development of  large wind power turbines in their communities, and 33 percent they would not.

"There certainly are some pockets where there might be a specific proposal that people get concerned about," Hierl says. "But overall, from a lot of conversations with communities and people all over the state, there still remains this really strong support for renewables."

"All over the state, there still remains this really strong support for renewables." - Lauren Hierl, Vermont Conservation Voters political director

Vermont Conservation Voters is an environmental lobbying group, and they've lined up squarely behind Scott's Democratic opponent, Sue Minter.

The debate over wind development has already played a role in Minter's run for the corner office.

The state's established environmental community got behind Minter in the primary after her leading opponent, Matt Dunne, said he wanted to give towns more power to stop wind projects.

Minter went on to trounce Dunne and win the nomination.

And so Hierl says Scott's call to slow wind development could once again swing some voters over to Minter's camp.

"Phil Scott's call for a moratorium or ban on wind development in the state is just the wrong approach all together," Hierl says. "I think there's a lot of good arguments why people from diverse perspectives might see slowing down that progress on renewables as a negative, and that could influence how they end up voting in November."

It remains to be seen whether or not voters are influenced by the industrial wind question enough to impact the outcome. But the debate over wind development is having an influence on the amount of money pouring into the race for governor.

Hierls' group set up a super PAC to help get Minter elected.

And the head of Energize Vermont, an anti-wind group, gave Scott's campaign $4,000, the maximum amount allowed under law.

The debate over siting renewable energy projects spilled over from a similar fight legislators held in the Statehouse this year.

Advocates pushed lawmakers for more local control over where turbines and solar panels can be located. But the final bill fell short of giving towns veto power over where projects should be built.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Signs in Windham show support for Phil Scott and opposition to a proposed wind project.

John Brabant is the regulatory affairs director for Vermonters for a Clean Environment, a group that opposes industrial wind developments.

And he says Vermonters who were disappointed in the final energy siting bill will remember when they go to the ballots on Election Day.

"People are feeling that we're losing local control and the power is being sucked up into Montpelier," Brabant says. "It's about bringing democracy back to our communities, and any campaign that doesn't recognize that is fooling themselves. That's what people are rebelling against."

So with some Democrats fleeing the party to support Scott's ban on big wind, and polls showing support for Minter's position of supporting all renewable energy, how might the issue play out on Election Day?

"A candidate running for statewide office in Vermont has to be pro-environment," says Richard Watts, a professor of public policy and energy planning at University of Vermont. "And renewables have become a way of talking about being pro-environment."

Watts says the economy, taxes and jobs are the big issues in this campaign.

"Phil Scott has been very clear, and he has said that he would stop industrial wind development in Vermont. And so 2016 is the year I am making my decision solely on this local issue." - Liisa Kissell, Grafton resident

But Scott and Minter have both embraced the state's energy plan, which sets a goal of getting 90 percent of the state's energy from renewable sources by 2050.

And so Watts says it will come down to each candidate selling his or her ideas about ridgeline wind development as part of an overall package on how the state will address climate change moving forward.

"I think the question then becomes, 'Are the candidates able to successfully frame this conversation in terms that are most helpful to their election?'" Watts says. "Can Scott make this about local control, and can Minter convince people that no moratorium equals pro-environment?"

The battle over Vermont's ridgelines isn't the defining issue of the 2016 campaign for governor. But in what's looking like a tight race between the candidates, it may have legs.

And if some voters say they want to support Scott to stop building turbines on ridgelines, while polls show support for Minter's plan to build more wind projects, then wind development could play a role in deciding who will be Vermont's next governor.

Correction 10:12 a.m. 10/15/2016 An updated simulated photo shows the view from Windham of a proposed wind project.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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