Last Friday, Democratic candidate for governor Matt Dunne issued a press release detailing his stance on wind energy projects in Vermont. His position hasn’t gone over well with some of his key supporters, and one of his primary rivals has become the beneficiary of their anger.
About two dozen renewable energy advocates and developers gathered on the steps of the Statehouse on Tuesday afternoon. They were there for a political announcement delivered by Lauren Hierl, political director of Vermont Conservation Voters.
“I’m pleased to announce that today the Vermont Conservation Voters board of directors voted unanimously to endorse Sue Minter as the Democratic nominee for governor of Vermont,” Hierl said to applause.
The announcement was as much an indictment of Dunne as it was an endorsement for Minter.
Last Friday, Dunne issued a press release saying that mountaintop wind projects should be put to a vote in the towns they’d be sited in. If a majority of residents oppose the plan, then Dunne says it should be the end of the project.
Hierl says that prior to Dunne’s statement, her organization had planned to stay out of the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
“However we believe that Matt Dunne’s revised position on renewable energy siting would undermine Act 174, the renewable energy siting bill, that was a major priority of the environmental community,” Hierl said.
Dunne’s stance has also cost him the endorsement of Bill McKibben, a climate change activist and perhaps the most prominent environmentalist in the state. Seven Days' Terri Hallenbeck reported on Sunday that after seeing Dunne’s release, McKibben promptly retracted his endorsement, and said he would now be supporting Minter instead.
Dunne says his position on wind isn’t out of step with the renewable energy policies he’s been touting throughout the race.
He has previously said he wouldn’t actively support wind projects that don’t have support from the towns they’d be built in. Friday is the first time he said he’d work to kill them.
“What I thought was important [was] that before election day that I make very clear what my position is,” Dunne said Tuesday.
Dunne says he thinks wind energy will be an important part of the mix if Vermont wants to get 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050, a goal he says he’s committed to achieving.
“But when that community says no, I believe you need to honor that community’s view,” Dunne says.
Dunne says he doesn’t think it’s a radical view. And he says he was under the impression that Gov. Peter Shumlin, who’s held in generally high regard by the renewable energy industry, held a similar view.
“I have always said and I will always say, I believe that no energy project should be built in a town in Vermont where the residents of that community don’t vote affirmatively to host it,” Shumlin said on Vermont Public Television in June of 2012. “We shouldn’t send them into towns that don’t want them.”
Asked about that statement on Tuesday, Shumlin said he was referring only to instances in which developers voluntarily put projects to a town-wide referendum.
He says Dunne’s proposal is far more expansive, and sets a precedent that would stymie the construction of public infrastructure. “If we did that, we virtually would have no highway infrastructure, no cell towers, no electricity, no internet and no renewable energy projects in Vermont,” Shumlin says.
Matt Dunne says the loss of McKibben’s support stings.
“I think it’s always tough when someone who’s supported you before, especially a friend like Bill, decides a positions that I take is no longer in line with his views,” Dunne says.
But Dunne says his plan isn’t at odds with McKibben’s renewable energy vision.
Peter Galbraith, the third Democrat in the gubernatorial primary field, favors a flat out prohibition on all ridgeline wind development.
Dunne, meanwhile, says his administration would work with towns to foster support for wind energy, and rally the ‘yes’ votes needed to proceed with a successful project.
And Dunne says other planks in his environmental platform – he wants to halt the extension of the natural gas pipeline, for instance, and have the state divest from coal stocks – make him the right candidate to lead the fight against climate change.
It’s unclear whether Dunne’s controversial position on wind will win him any electoral favor with voters seeking an end to ridgeline developments.
Annette Smith is the executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, a group that has sought to stall several wind energy proposals in the state.
“I’m really kind of bored with these superficial statements from people who obviously don’t know anything about the issues or what’s been happening,” Smith says.
Smith says giving one town veto power over a proposed wind project does nothing for the adjoining municipalities who may be able to hear or see the turbines from their homes. She says Green Mountain Power’s installation in Lowell won overwhelming backing from residents there.
“The surrounding towns which in some respects have more impacts than Lowell itself get practically nothing, except the impacts, so it’s ignoring the reality of what’s going on with wind energy in Vermont,” Smith says.
In fact, towns adjoining the Lowell project have received "good neighbor payments," based on electricity generation, in each of the of the years the project has been operating, according to a spokesperson from Green Mountain Power.
And with Democrat Peter Galbraith and GOP gubernatorial candidates Phil Scott and Bruce Lisman calling for either a moratorium or ban on mountaintop wind, anti-wind development voters might find more preferable choices in the field.
This story was edited at 10:35 a.m. on 8/3/16 to note that towns adjoining the Lowell wind project receive some financial compensation from Green Mountain Power