VPIRG’s Leah Marsters reflects on her tour of Sheffield

Vermonters’ overwhelming support for clean energy, and wind in particular, is threatening to a handful of opposition groups bent on dismantling our state’s commitment to take responsibility for generating our own energy.  With the media choosing largely to focus on covering the fear and controversy wind opponents have successfully drummed up, it’s probably tough to tell that 70% of Vermonters support harnessing the clean, renewable wind resource found on state ridgelines.

Unfortunately, that’s encouraged some state legislators to seek redress, namely in the form of a proposed moratorium on new wind projects. So, VPIRG has set our sights on identifying and cultivating a core group of wind advocates that speak up in support of wind and give voice to the silent majority of Vermonters. And, when it comes to reassuring decision-makers, the myths and misinformation won’t stand up to a regular Vermonter’s story of what it was actually like to stand under a turbine.

Visiting a Vermont wind project is about more than just seeing what clean energy looks like in action.  Having first-hand experience traveling the road, listening to the turbines, and getting questions answered empowers individuals to form their own opinions on wind power and the confidence to voice them.

20121012_VPIRG_FirstWind_105On October 12th, 2012, our crew of staff, interns, and community members boarded the yellow school bus for the largest clean energy tour we’ve led to date. On our first stop, First Wind’s Josh Bagnato, chronicled the seven years it took to turn the Sheffield Wind Farm from an idea to reality. He paid particular attention to those of us who didn’t know how much time and innovation had gone into developing solutions that would protect the local habitat, minimize impacts, and provide benefits to the immediate and statewide communities. As we wound our way up the narrow road leading to the top, Josh pointed out some of the unique attributes of this particular project, like the state-of-the-art storm water drainage ponds we saw strategically placed on either side of the path.

As soon as the turbines came into view, the cameras started clicking.  For most, it was the first time they’d seen wind power in action.  “They are much less intrusive up close than I expected,” shared Bernie, a long-time environmentalist, who had been concerned about the project’s scale. “And quieter, too.”

In fact, much of the group was surprised that all they could hear—the wind was blowing strong, so the turbines were turning at full capacity—was a low hum.  When Bernie asked why we didn’t build more wind projects here, he didn’t have to raise his voice.

For Peter, wind power is an important part of an energy future that doesn’t rely on other dirty and dangerous sources—just a couple of years ago, he moved to Vermont to join the movement to retire Vermont Yankee.  But media coverage of wind development got him nervous, and so he jumped at the chance to visit a wind project.  What’s the word he’d use to describe turbines now that he’s seen them up close? “Amazing,” he said. “These turbines are amazing.”

After the group had a chance to go explore the site on their own, VPIRG’s Executive Director gathered us all together to explain why it was so important for each of us to share what we’d seen. Interest in the tour exceeded the 50 person maximum set by First Wind, and those of us lucky enough to make the trip today have a powerful and important story to share.  While organizers shared VPIRG’s wind activist toolkit, with fact sheets and a detailed guide on how to be a successful advocate of wind power and clean energy, Paul went on to explain to the group how their actions could really shape the hard road ahead.  By combating the misinformation and sharing our stories, we can all do our part to ensure our state continues on the path to harnessing its clean energy resources.

Projects like Sheffield are exactly why Andy, one of the tour participants, is still speaking up for wind in his community of Lowell, which now hosts the largest wind farm in Vermont: the 21-turbine Kingdom Community Wind project. For him, and thousands of Vermonters across the state, wind projects are part of our working landscape; the turbines are tributes to our legacy of doing our part to take responsibility for our energy needs, maintain a healthy environment, and safeguard the future for generations to come.

This field trip was an important initiation for these community members and future activists. Many of those who joined us have submitted letters to the editor about their experience. Others are organizing house parties, contacting their legislators, and much more.  While we have a lot  of organizing ahead of us, each day we are strengthening the voice of the majority and fighting even harder for clean energy in Vermont.

Perhaps instead of remembering the freezing cold temper20121012_VPIRG_FirstWind_140atures they braved and unexpected gusts of wet snowflakes they brushed out of their hair, the 50 community leaders, legislators, college students, parents and children who trekked up to First Wind’s Sheffield Wind Farm with us in October will remember feeling pleasantly surprised, reassured and empowered by the day’s activities.

One thing’s for sure, though.  For the mother moose and her baby who sauntered across the road in front of us as we headed down the mountain, it was just another day living next to the clean energy project powering 16,000 Vermont homes.