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How Wind Energy Unites Enviros and Farmers

Environmentalists and advocates for property rights are used to being at odds. Enviros put a priority on preventing damage to the ecosystems that support us. Property rights people are accustomed to reminding us that there should be limits to what the government can force owners to do.

But as Vermont moves haltingly toward cleaner energy, Greens and some property rights advocates, especially farmers, now find themselves on the same side.

These days they’re making common cause around an unlikely topic: wind energy.

The Public Service Board (PSB) is moving ahead with regulations to limit sound levels made by wind turbines. The problem: the allowable sound levels under this proposed standard are so low that they could essentially ban new wind energy in Vermont.

That concerns Greens, who want to push the state rapidly toward its declared goal of getting 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2050.

Property rights advocates are worried about the PSB standard, too. Farmers and others want to be able to erect low-noise wind turbines to meet their energy needs.

Addison County Sen. Chris Bray last year brokered a deal to give towns more local control over energy planning. He also continues to push legislation to make the state’s broad commitment to renewables more of a practical reality.

But we can’t get to broad use of green energy unless wind is part of the mix. And we’re making some progress: Wind already accounts for 15 percent of state electricity production.

But even low-noise turbines wouldn’t meet the PSB standard. Opponents of the low sound limits say they are well below the decibel levels of cars passing by. Indeed, the PSB standard would ban wind turbines with decibel levels that are below the sound in a quiet house.

A group of 40 farms last year called on Vermont officials to protect property owners’ rights to install solar and other energy.

“We are concerned,” they wrote Vermont officials, “about policies being developed in Montpelier that could negatively impact our ability to affordably use and host solar and other renewable energy projects on our farms.”

The first item on their requests? “Ensure that the property rights of working landscape owners are not diminished.”

They pointed out that “Vermont farmers have a proud tradition of turning the sun’s energy into productive use. Producing clean renewable energy is an increasingly vital part of Vermont’s modern agricultural economy.”

The land owners – including representatives of 14 farms in Addison County – went on to say, “We believe Vermont’s renewable energy and agricultural economies are complementary. As farmers who currently or plan in the future to host solar, biomass, or wind projects, we are proud to be doing our part for future generations by providing Vermont-made renewable energy and reducing our dependence on out-of-state fossil fuels.”

One of those land owners — Marie Audet of Audet’s Blue Spruce Farm, in Bridport – recently issued another public appeal for reasonable standards that would allow farmers to generate electricity and potentially profit from renewable sources.

“We were so delighted with the results of our ‘Cow Power’ project that in May 2013, we collaborated with Green Mountain Power to install a wind turbine designed and manufactured in Barre by Northern Power Systems,” she wrote in a commentary on VTDigger.com.

But the PSB standards “would likely prevent other dairy farmers from making the same energy choices we did,” she warned. “The PSB proposal is unrealistic and creates needless barriers to small farm-scale wind turbine opportunities. We are a three-generation family farm with a proud tradition of caring for our animals, land and each other; if the sound levels from our wind turbine were in any way harmful, we would be the first to do something about it.”

The farm’s large and scenic wind turbine generates what Audet called “a swooshing sound” that is “similar to that of the wind blowing the leaves on the trees. The flapping of our United States flag in front of the barn is noisier than the windmill. The sound of traffic on the road is far more offensive and unnatural.”

Audet warned that the PSB standard could kill any further opportunities for other farmers.

“We have found harvesting the wind to be painless and simple,” she wrote. “It would be a shame if all Vermonters were denied benefit from this emerging promising technology as we continue as a community to increase our renewables portfolio for a cleaner sustainable future.”

The PSB standard is now subject to review by a legislative committee. But this unnecessarily restrictive regulation could stand unless there’s a public outcry to keep wind as a green option for Vermont property owners.

Would it be worth having that option?

I believe so. Wind already employs over 325 workers in Vermont and could provide many more jobs if there’s a market for systems like the Audets’. Existing wind projects contribute over $1 million to the state education fund – helping to ease the property tax burden – and account for more than $1.25 million in tax revenue to Vermont towns every year. Independent studies in the U.S. and Canada show no link between turbine noise and health issues.

At this point it’s customary to end with a comment that the answer to whether or not Vermont will benefit from wind power is “blowin’ in the wind.”

But it’s not. The answer lies with the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules. LCAR now has little more than a month to review the PSB standard and push back against these overly restrictive sound levels.

That’s important because everything we do to get off fossil fuels can be part of the solution to climate change.

For LCAR to do nothing would be one more small step toward a Green Mountain State where strong ski businesses are a thing of the past, the maple sugar industry is on life support, and our farmers are denied the benefits of generating sustainable energy on their land.

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