Proposed Solar Development Raises Complex Questions

Last week, Sustainable Woodstock’s Energy Action Group hosted a presentation by Tom Garden of Triland Partners, who is proposing to construct a solar farm consisting of hundreds of panels on a field near Taftsville village.

A large audience filled Town Hall’s conference room, and their ardent, sometimes heated comments and demanding questions confirmed the point I made here a couple weeks ago: placing renewable energy systems into the natural landscape poses a difficult dilemma for environmentalists. In fact, it is a dilemma for all citizens to ponder.

On the face of it, replacing fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources with renewables is an easy choice–we simply must do it. But exactly how this goal is pursued raises a host of thorny, complex issues, many of which erupted at the forum. I sat quietly amid the hubbub, trying to sort through the contradictory views and realities.

Some of Mr. Garden’s statements were directly challenged by audience members, including Annette Smith, a knowledgeable activist who has advised communities around the state on the siting of renewable energy projects. She was not impressed with this project.

The developer portrayed himself as a benefactor of the community who would lower the cost of electricity. Yet a community-owned system would save consumers more. He stated that he wanted to address neighbors’ concerns, yet he did not appear to really listen to anyone opposed to the project, even when one warned him of serious water issues in this location. His answers to questions about investors’ return on the project or how neighbors’ views would be screened struck many as unhelpful.

Yet the differences aired last week were not specific to this project. In its haste to meet ambitious renewable energy goals, the state of Vermont has established procedures that tend to benefit large solar and wind developers and largely leave local communities out of the approval process. The Public Service Board routinely OKs projects over local opposition.

In addition, the state has set up an obscure procedure for giving developers an additional financial incentive—“renewable energy credits” or RECs. Much of the time at last week’s discussion was spent trying to understand how these work and what they mean for the cost of electricity generated in Taftsville, though the audience left without much clarification.

These rules set up an unfortunate conflict. As Mr. Garden confidently (and correctly) asserted, a private developer has the right, in our capitalist system, to make a profit from his or her willingness to take financial risks. On the other hand, if the public does not defend the commons (natural resources that benefit all) to some reasonable extent, then everything will be privatized and exploited for personal gain.

Similarly, individual homeowners are justified in wanting to protect the value of their hard-earned private property; it is not simply “NIMBYism” to oppose projects that despoil a place. Yet, if every proposed placement of solar or wind projects is rejected, we will be unable to replace dirty energy with clean. As someone at the forum pointed out, we can have solar panels on the land or continue to push climate change to such a severe level that it won’t matter anyway.

The state needs to establish new rules to navigate these conflicts more fairly. Granted, the initiative and capital of private developers are needed if we are to make the necessary transition to renewable energy. But this should not mean a blank check for developers to carpet the landscape with fields full of glass and metal. Tilting the scales in favor of private profit over the common good is hardly a recipe for a greener future.

For further reading on these issues, see: 

Editorial in the Addison Independent

Annette Smith essay on Vermont Digger

A more radical environmentalist take on renewable energy here

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