Editorial: Siting Solar Projects in Vermont

Published: 4/17/2016 12:18:00 AM
Modified: 4/17/2016 12:17:59 AM

One thing that has become clear over the past couple of years is that notwithstanding their reputation for being green, grassroots Vermonters have no inclination to grant free rein to renewable-energy developers. While they recognize the environmental imperative to promote sustainable energy, they are not about to subordinate their reverence for the state’s landscape or its tradition of local control to accomplish that worthy end.

The most prominent Upper Valley example, perhaps, was Green Mountain Power’s bid to erect 19,000 solar panels on about 35 acres of state land at the Southeast Correctional Facility in Windsor, a proposal that collapsed in January amid intense local opposition. Not only would the project, one of the largest in the state, have encroached on land with panoramic views that had been prized for decades by birdwatchers, hikers and hunters, but also the town and its residents were informed of its existence only after GMP and the state had been in negotiations on a lease agreement for 10 months or more. The process as much as the proposal outraged the town.

In Windsor’s case, GMP withdrew the project after the Selectboard voted 5-0 to oppose it; thus it never reached the state’s Public Service Board, the three-member quasi-judicial body that, under current law, exercises authority over solar and wind projects in furtherance of the state’s aggressive goals for developing renewable energy. As the number of proposed projects has spiked, so have complaints that municipalities and ordinary citizens have too little say in the process. More than 100 communities have petitioned the Legislature for a more meaningful role in siting decisions.

The result is a bill passed by the Senate at the end of March that is now being considered in the House, where its future is uncertain at best. The legislation attempts to address the concern over local participation by establishing a new municipal and regional planning process for utility-sized projects to which the PSB would be obliged to defer unless there was clear evidence that a project’s public benefit outweighed the priorities delineated in a municipal plan. It does not, however, provide communities with veto power over projects within their borders; the plans, which would be subject to state certification, would have to identify acceptable sites as well as land that towns want to protect or consider otherwise unsuitable.

The Senate’s handiwork has critics in both camps. One side complains that it does not provide municipalities with any real authority, leaves too much control with the PSB and does nothing substantive to address ongoing noise concerns associated with wind projects. For her part, Public Service Board member Margaret Cheney, of Norwich, last week identified for two House committees flaws she found in the bill and detailed efforts the PSB was already undertaking to make it easier for the public to participate in a complex regulatory process. According to VtDigger, Cheney, a former lawmaker, criticized as vague and subjective some of the key language and standards that would be established, and argued that the regime proposed by the Senate failed to provide needed “consistency and predictability.”

Just because a proposed solution draws fire from opposing sides doesn’t mean that it is an effective, down-the-middle compromise. Yet we think that what the Senate is attempting is worthwhile and how it is attempting to do it reasonable — striking a balance among important values. The leaders of the green revolution need millions of followers to man the barricades if climate change is to be subdued. The way to create a mighty army of Vermonters is not to ignore their right to meaningful participation or to despoil iconic landscape, even if the cost is a somewhat more cumbersome review process for renewable energy projects. Inviting the people in is never a bad idea in the mansion of democratic politics, even if they make things a little messier.  



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