Editorâ€™s note: This commentary is by Annette Smith, who is the executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment Inc. She has lived off grid in Danby for 30 years, and was named the 2016 Burlington Free Press Vermonter of the Year.
Michael Mooreâ€™s documentary â€śPlanet of the Humansâ€ť by Jeff Gibbs and Ozzie Zehner has stirred up a frenzy of criticism from climate change activists, a Rolling Stone rebuttal by 350.org founder Bill McKibben, and demands by filmmaker Josh Fox to take the movie down.Â
I am motivated to write from the trenches of Vermont, where some of the filmâ€™s footage is centered, in response to the strident accusations that â€śPlanet of the Humansâ€ť is causing tremendous damage to the climate change movement by casting renewables â€“ wind, solar and biomass â€“ in negative terms full of inaccuracies.
â€śPlanet of the Humansâ€ť was too kind to renewable energy.Â It is an ugly business. Greed and political power combine with renewable energy to destroy the environment and the lives of the people who live nearby.
After the videoâ€™s release, I received a critique originating from Vermont by someone I do not know stating, â€śMy guess is that the group he is walking with in this section is Annette Smithâ€™s Vermonters for a Clean Environment, which has done more harm to Vermontâ€™s transition off of fossil fuels to renewable energy than everyone else combined.â€ť Yes, thatâ€™s me, the thorn in the side of renewable developers. No, I was not in the film.Â
In 1999, I founded an organization to fight a natural gas power plant and pipeline project supported by then-Gov. Howard Dean. Living off-grid with solar, batteries and a generator, I believed solar was our energy future. With facts, information and grassroots organizing, we ran the gas guys out of the state.Â
In 2009, an industrial wind project was proposed in my county. Numerous people on both sides reached out asking us to get involved.Â
To my surprise, wind energy development, especially on top of mountains, raised numerous issues. I had seen the 11 196-foot tall 600 kW wind turbines built in 1996 in southern Vermont and thought they were beautiful. I went with a friend whose farm hosted SolarFest to see a New York project with 50 420-foot tall 2.5 mW wind turbines.Â We talked to a farmer who hosted some of the turbines. We talked to neighbors who wished they hadnâ€™t signed the lease because the noise was horrible after being told there would be no noise. On the ride home we agreed that what we saw was â€śvery disturbing.â€ťÂ
The next 10 years blur together as Vermonters elected a governor committed to building as much renewable energy everywhere possible.Â
Gov. Peter Shumlin, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Bill McKibben shut down conversations about impacts to communities and the natural environment because â€śwe do not have time for that conversation.â€ť At a Bernie Sanders press conference, we were compared to creationists. Shumlin called us â€ścave people.â€ťÂ Â
Now, thanks to â€śPlanet of the Humans,â€ť we are finally having that conversation.Â Â
The former state naturalist, a climate change scientist, a wildlife habitat specialist, and a former commissioner of fish and wildlife came together to educate the public about our mountainsâ€™ values for climate change adaptation, with a series of roundtable discussions called Peak Keepers about the importance of mountains for wildlife, water, and forests.Â
When the Lowell Mountains were being sacrificed for the wind project developed by Green Mountain Power â€” subsidiary of Energir, 30% owned by fossil fuel pipeline developer Enbridge â€” Vermonters hiked up the other side of the mountain to see for themselves what â€śgreen energyâ€ť looks like.Â
Don and Shirley Nelsonâ€™s farm bordered the wind project for a mile and a half.Â For 50 years, the Nelsons never kept anyone off their ~600 acres. They permitted people to hike up. GMP was not happy. With no notice to the Nelsons, GMP got a temporary restraining order and sued them, prohibiting everyone from going within 1,000 feet of the wind project site. Police with dogs patrolled and arrested people, including a reporter. At least 20 people were arrested on different occasions, some intentionally.Â
A Vermonter invited Bill McKibben to come see for himself.Â He declined.Â
After the wind project was built, the Nelsons got sick from the wind projectâ€™s acoustic emissions and had no choice but to sell to GMP. It came with a gag order so Don and Shirley cannot talk about their experience. They were collateral damage. Many other neighbors of industrial wind projects have shared the same fate.Â
As more wind projects were proposed in Vermont, I watched people lose their innocence as they, like me, thought wind and solar energy were going to save the planet. The more we learned, the more opposed we became.Â
The film neglects the societal damage caused by wind energy. Wind developersâ€™ playbook requires dividing communities. It is guaranteed that opposition will arise, so they try to create a proponent group to combat the opponents. Even areas where wind projects have failed are left with animosities that will take generations to heal. We have seen companies offer to write letters for proponents to send to the local papers and try to buy votes.Â Â
In 2016, I felt the wrath of the wind and solar industry when someone filed a complaint with Vermontâ€™s Attorney General alleging I was practicing law without a license by assisting people in participating in the regulatory process for energy projects at the Public Utility Commission. It was a criminal investigation. Newspaper editorials and Green Mountain Power came to my defense. I hired a criminal defense attorney who wrote a letter to the AG pointing out that â€śthe AGâ€™s office is not the surrogate of the politically frustrated.â€ť The AG dropped it, and an attorney who previously sent a letter telling me he represented a wind and solar developer admitted he filed the complaint, but claimed he did it on his own.Â Â
Industrial solar is no better. A wealthy developer seeking to cut more than 100 acres of forest filed lawsuits against a town, neighbors, state agencies, and even the governor while proclaiming he is saving the planet and anyone who stands in his way is â€śsigning the death warrant of many Americans.â€ťÂ
This year, biomass plant owner Engie came to the Vermont Legislature seeking subsidies to enable continuing burning forests for a small amount of electricity that drives up rates for Vermonters. The stateâ€™s leading environmental group Vermont Natural Resources Council, with Bill McKibben on their Advisory Committee, supported it. Bill McKibben did not weigh in. Apparently he prefers to maximize his own carbon footprint by traveling the planet lecturing people about how they have to reduce their carbon footprint.Â
Try to talk to Bill McKibben about solar and wind energy.Â He treats it as a personal attack as though his feelings are hurt. He can endlessly rattle off statistics about climate change. But, when asked the question about who funds 350.org, he acted stupid, or as though it wasnâ€™t relevant.Â
I looked up 350.orgâ€™s 990s and learned that in 2017 the organization had $19 million in funding. Over a five-year period, the organizationâ€™s funding was $66 million. It is reasonable to expect Bill McKibben to know its source.Â
Please do not feel sorry for Bill McKibben. He and his enablers doth protest too much.Â
Yes, â€śPlanet of the Humansâ€ť was too kind to the renewablists. It is all about the money. â€śClimate emergencyâ€ť activists and their funders are doing a lot of damage to the planet by focusing only on CO2, proclaiming wind and solar will save the planet, distracting us from the overarching issues of pollution, population and over-consumption that are killing our planet.