Wrestling with an Environmentalist’s Dilemma

We at Sustainable Woodstock are wrestling with an environmentalist’s dilemma.

On one hand, being intensely concerned about the worsening consequences of climate change, we actively encourage the development of renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, that do not release massive amounts of greenhouse gases.

On the other hand, believing that true sustainability must also include community wellbeing and conservation of the natural landscape, we recognize that some wind and solar energy installations are better than others, and that we must proceed thoughtfully in constructing a new, post-carbon energy infrastructure.

During the age of fossil fuels and nuclear power, our thirst for energy was allowed to trump all other considerations, without concern for the fragile beauty and inherent limits of the natural world. Let’s not make the same mistake with renewable energy. Some wind and solar projects can themselves have a negative impact on wildlife, water quality and human health, and they can ruin the beautiful landscapes that help define our regional identity.

Many people, including  many environmentalists, say that wind turbines and solar panels are “beautiful,” especially in contrast to the coal and nuclear plants, strip mining and pollution they are presumably replacing. Yet others, also including environmentalists, can’t help seeing them as industrial invasions of the natural landscape. In short, large wind and solar developments are more appropriate in some locations than in others.

Woodstock’s town plan supports local energy projects but also emphasizes that the town’s “visual environment, both built and natural, is the foundation of its identity.” Concern arises because the current renewable energy permitting process bypasses the community scrutiny of Act 250, a Vermont law passed in 1970 that was designed to address, review and mitigate the environmental and community impacts of major development projects.

Current policies promote development of renewable energy through tax and carbon credits, and incentives may indeed be necessary for making such a massive transition in our energy system. However, projects that sell Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) benefit the states where the RECs are sold (usually Massachusetts or Connecticut) and help those states meet their Renewable Portfolio Standards. This may come as a surprise to many people, but selling these credits does not create renewable energy for Vermonters.

True sustainability should involve some element of community ownership and local economic benefit. If we retain the established model of distant investors harvesting private profit from locally generated electricity, without giving back to the community, we haven’t really changed the system.

To summarize, in building a more sustainable society, we most certainly need to develop more renewable energy projects—many more of them—but we must understand that they don’t belong everywhere and should be placed, after careful consideration, where they cause the least disruption to natural and human environments. And they should, as much as possible, benefit those who have to live with the infrastructure.

Sustainable Woodstock is not taking a position on any specific project at this time, including the solar development recently proposed for Taftsville. We do, however, urge the developer to engage with the community about the proposed project and how it can benefit the community. To this end, the Energy Committee is sponsoring a public forum next Wednesday, April 29 at 7:00 p.m. in the Woodstock Town Hall upstairs meeting room, and we encourage residents to attend and participate. To learn more, contact energy@sustainablewoodstock.org.

We will also continue with other solar projects, which involve individual home systems and municipal or community-owned installations that would reduce energy costs for area residents.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *