Editorial: Talking Renewables

Vermont stands accused of talking the talk when it comes to renewable energy but failing to walk the walk. The basis of this charge seems to be that while the state likes to think of itself as clean and green — as witnessed by ambitious renewable energy goals in its comprehensive energy plan — individual projects have faced spirited local opposition as well as regulatory hurdles.

“It’s time for Vermont to grow up and get real on the future, and the future is renewables,” David Blittersdorf, co-owner of Georgia Mountain Community Wind LLC, a commercial-scale wind project straddling the line between the towns of Milton and Georgia, told The Associated Press for an article published Monday in the Valley News.

We’re not sure which is the more damning indictment, hypocrisy or immaturity, but we’re pretty sure neither is warranted. Yes, wind projects in Lowell and elsewhere have been highly controversial, and regulators just recently turned down a wood-burning power plant proposed for North Springfield. But there are a few things to be considered in this regard. One is that just because the state itself makes the adoption of renewable energy a top priority, no individual is obliged to make that goal his or her own, either in the abstract or in the concrete form of a project that affects him or her personally.

And while the need to curb carbon emissions is surely compelling in the face of climate change, that doesn’t mean that every alternative energy project is intrinsically worth doing, or that other considerations count for nothing. The beauty of the visual landscape is also important to the state’s identity and economic future, and when those two competing goods come into conflict, then reasonable people can disagree on the best course of action. That’s what makes democracy the day-to-day challenge that it is.

Also, it should go without saying that regulators ought to regulate impartially, giving the same level of scrutiny to renewable energy developments that they do to more traditional sources and applying the criteria even-handedly. A bad project is a bad project, whatever the energy source.

Most of all, projects of all sorts are improved when the communities that host them are welcomed into the process and invited to participate as full partners in their development. Yes, this can slow things to a crawl sometimes, but ultimately an agreed-upon approach reached through consensus is likely to be enduring and to avoid the kind of long-standing bitterness that results when a community feels that its interests and desires have been ignored.

We note that a proposal is moving ahead in Strafford to locate a 5 megawatt solar array at the old Elizabeth Mine. It would generate enough power for 1,000 Vermont homes, according to the Strafford Energy Committee. That this project might avoid some of the controversy that has surrounded others can be inferred from the fact that the mine is a former Superfund site that has been cleaned up by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is unsuitable for most other kinds of development; and that the plan has been developed by a group of Upper Valley residents who presumably are attuned to community sensibilities. But these characteristics are unusual; more than likely, the debate over renewable energy projects in Vermont is just beginning. And what’s so bad about that?