Solar Siting: Searching for Our Yeses

By Elizabeth Ferry, Barnard Energy Committee

Earlier this summer, a solar developer proposed an installation in Taftsville. The community was challenged to get up to speed quickly to wrap their minds around the idea and weigh its pros and cons. They formulated an opinion and expressed it effectively: “yes to solar, but no, not here.” As a result the developer will not pursue the proposal and the land will be preserved by the community.

While it is a victory for the community and the particular site, it raises other questions: Where is commercial scale solar appropriate? Where are our yeses?

When Vermonters said yes to renewable energy in 2007, we had vision. We did not want to jeopardize the future by excessive use of fossil fuels and contributing to irreversible changes in the earth’s climate. And, in positive terms, we knew what we did want: non-polluting sources of energy, local jobs, and the continuation of the Vermont tradition that a simple life can be a good life. We were willing to put our money where our mouth (and heart) were, creating financial incentives and reducing the regulatory process to get the ball rolling.

That was our Big Picture thinking. Implementation has had its own learning curve.

In the Upper Valley, we’re learning that, by and large, residential solar –– solar panels installed by a homeowner for personal use –- is a yes. Residential solar is a lot about local: locally owned (by the homeowner), appropriately sized (to household use), unobtrusively located (usually on the roof), and (often) installed with local labor. It generally has community support.

Commercial solar fares differently when viewed through the local lens. Commercial solar tends not to be locally owned, may be disproportionate to its surroundings, and the energy it produces may or may not be used locally. Further, the financial risk, as well as benefit, tend to be borne outside the community.

But if we return to the Big Picture thinking, we see that commercial solar still has something to offer. It creates, in greater volume than residential solar, the cleaner renewable energy that we’ve said we want. How do we blend the positive aspects of each? What are pieces, and how do they fit together to create the proposals to which we’ll say yes?

One approach is to use significantly less energy. Period. We can easily say yes to the power plant that doesn’t need to be built.

Another is to take a positive from each side and put them together in a question, even if it doesn’t have an obvious answer. For example, “What’s bigger than a house roof and less in view than a hillside field in a village center?”

Projects are going to keep coming. It’s an important step to say no to the ones that are inappropriately sited. And we can’t stop there; our task now is to be proactive. We need to articulate criteria for what will work and identify real potential locations.

We can create a future in Vermont that respects our traditions of simple living, community involvement, and rural beauty while addressing the demands of our times. The sooner we start, the sooner we reach the joy of finding solutions.

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