Wind Takes Center Stage in Vermont Governor's Race

Sue Minter's victory in the Democratic primary came over an opponent of big wind projects. She now faces another anti-wind Republican opponent in November.

Large wind projects work best on ridgelines, which draws opposition in places like Vermont

Large wind projects work best when they are placed on ridgelines, which is what draws opposition from people in places like Vermont. Credit: Getty Images

In a statewide contest notable for its vigorous debate over wind power, victory went to the candidate who favors industrial-scale wind development.

Sue Minter, who had financial backing from Vermont wind developers, won Tuesday's Democratic gubernatorial primary by a double-digit margin over opponents who favored giving local communities veto power over large-scale projects or who opposed such projects entirely.

All the candidates supported Vermont's ambitious goal of obtaining 90 percent of its total energy from renewables by 2050—not just electricity, but also for transportation. Where they differed was on the role wind power, and people living near large projects, would play in obtaining that goal.

"I know it's going to take a mix of sources of renewable energy to meet that goal, including well-sited wind," Minter said during a primary debate.  

Large-scale wind farms are particularly divisive in Vermont, a state known for its progressive politics and environmentalism long before the rise of 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. The best locations for wind power are on the tops of ridgelines, iconic landscapes that many don't want to see marred by windmills, including environmentalists and those dependent on tourism in a state known for its natural splendor. The ridgelines also provide important wildlife habitat that is threatened by a changing climate.

"It's a very dynamic issue and it's divided people here," said Anne Galloway, editor and executive director of the statewide online publication VTDigger.

The issue of wind power began to take an outsized role in the primary after Matt Dunne, a leading candidate, switched his position on the siting of new turbines on July 29, just 10 days before the primary.

That was followed by  a debate among the three leading candidates on Aug. 4 that opened with a discussion on wind power that consumed nearly a quarter of the entire, 50-minute debate.

"Large-scale ridgeline wind projects should only take place with the approval of the towns where the projects are located," Dunne said in a press release.  "As governor, I will ensure that no means no."

Two days later, Bill McKibben, a leading international environmental activist who lives in Vermont, withdrew his support for Dunne and endorsed Minter.

"Towards the end of last Friday afternoon, something happened that convinced me I'd made a mistake," McKibben said in a statement. "Wind power is not the only, or even the most important, energy issue of the moment. But it is important. And its importance means [a] candidate's basic positions on it shouldn't shift overnight."

On August 3, Vermont Conservation Voters, an environmental group, also backed Minter after  previously saying it would not endorse a candidate during the primaries.

State filings show that Minter received nearly $13,000, either directly or through super PACs from two individuals seeking to develop large-scale wind power projects in the state, according to the online publication Seven Days.

Minter won the Democratic primary with 49 percent of the vote.  Dunne received 37 percent. Peter Galbraith, who opposed large-scale wind, earned just 9 percent.

The results show strong support for renewable energy development in the state and "not taking any particular technology off the table," said Sandy Levine of the Conservation Law Foundation.  Vermont has already built three large wind farms and permitted a fourth. In doing so, the state has come up with "very successful mitigation plans" to make sure wildlife habitat is protected, Levine said.

Minter's victory came one day after Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed legislation that will require state utilities to get 1,600 megawatts—roughly equivalent to three average-sized coal-fired power plants—of their combined electricity from offshore wind farms.

In November's election, Minter will now face Phil Scott, Vermont's current lieutenant governor, who won this week's Republican primary. Scott opposes large-scale wind farms.

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