Big gas. Big wind. Big telecom. Big electric merger. Big changes are happening in Vermont’s utility landscape. What does it say about our state when this past town meeting, one Vermont community authorized spending $50,000 to fight industrial wind in their town, and another community authorized the same amount to fight the natural gas pipeline in theirs? One renewable energy project, one fossil fuel, both carbon reducers. Policy makers and utility regulators have repeatedly found these activities to be “in the public interest,” but still, citizens choose to fight. Why is that?
The easy explanation is to dismiss their concerns as NIMBY (not in my back yard). I disagree. Someone needs to look after their “back yard,” and when people feel their concerns are not fully represented in the process, they fight — and they should. Informed dissent is essential to civil society. People can agree on a problem and at the same time disagree on the solution. What matters is how they engage in the process to reach consensus or at least compromise. We need to encourage civil debate and give it a full hearing in our structured decision making process — even if it takes more time.
Some readily see an alignment between the public interest and the interest of consumers; others will occasionally see a divergence and tension between the two. For example, if promotion of renewable energy is in the public interest, do consumers have a right to weigh in on who profits from taxpayer subsidies and the higher rates they are required to pay for that energy? If the expansion of the natural gas pipeline is in the public interest, do consumers have a say in who gets gas service, and do they have a right to question the techniques used to produce that gas? If a community will “host” the utility development — perhaps against their wishes — should they share somehow in the profits earned?
As we search for consensus, we need to understand that often, sacrifices must be made for “the common good.” And, sacrifices are made by some every time Vermont promotes new utility initiatives. Whether it’s the siting of wind machines or a solar array — or the power lines necessary to transmit that energy to markets — or the burying of a natural gas pipeline, people and communities are affected to various degrees.
I do not believe that citizens should abdicate their interests just because a public opinion poll shows the majority believes otherwise. And, I reject as false and counter-productive attempts to bully them into doing so. The principled citizen has a duty to dissent when the rights of a minority are threatened by the majority. If Vermont wants to be a leader in the response to climate change — and I believe we should — Vermont must also show leadership in reconciling legitimate differences of opinion and interest. People naturally want to be part of the solution; and in order to do that, their interests must be considered as part of the process.