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Discourse and Power in Vermont Energy Decisions

By The View Staff Article published January 18, 2006

Richard Watts, policy fellow at the the Snelling Center for Government, will give a talk titled "Planning for Power: Citizen Participation in the Siting of a High-Voltage Transmission Line in Vermont" on Jan. 26 at 7:30 p.m. in Memorial Lounge, Waterman Building.

Watts' talk is part of the Center for Research on Vermont’s research-in-progress seminar series, which are dedicated this year to the memory of James Petersen, a UVM anthropology professor who was murdered last year while conducting research in Brazil.

Watts’ case study explores the planning for, and conflict around, the siting of 63 miles of new high-voltage transmission line in Vermont, known as the Northwest Reliability Project. It focuses on the construction of knowledge by citizens, elected town officials, and utility energy planners, specifically, their understanding of the NRP, and how they came to that understanding. To assist in examining the construction of knowledge, the study uses a frame analysis model that looks at three measures for understanding how frames dominate media discourse: cultural resonance and narrative fidelity, sponsorship activities, and media standing.

Findings highlight the constraints of the energy planning process, both in the types of decisions that can emerge and in the choices available to policymakers. The study highlights how expert knowledge is privileged over local knowledge and how issues raised by citizens were not addressed in the regulatory process. While the case study highlights the importance of a more participatory planning process, significant challenges lie ahead for engaging citizens in Vermont energy planning and decisionmaking.

Richard Watts has a doctorate in natural resource planning with a focus on citizen participation. He currently teaches a course on energy policy through the Environmental Program at the University of Vermont.