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Guest Editorial: Give Vermonters a voice in siting renewable energy

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Posted on January 27, 2016 |
By Emerson Lynn



A bill that would ban industrial wind projects in Vermont was introduced this past week by Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, and the effort drew cheers from a throng of onlookers in Montpelier.

Mr. Rodgers’ audience was part of an organized attempt to explain to lawmakers that Vermonters are frustrated with how little their voices matter when it comes to the siting of industrial-sized solar and wind projects.

It wasn’t a small group, and it wasn’t a group from a particular part of the state. The voices of discontent were from all parts of Vermont and the objective was embraced by groups as politically midstream as the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

How did a state that embraces renewable energy as something akin to the second coming, get into this contentious position?

We’re here because we set no meaningful standards. We’re here because the Legislature essentially said the public’s voice didn’t matter, that the state knew better. We pushed the pendulum all the way to the non-interventionists side, thinking that few would oppose something as benign as solar panels and wind turbines. When the renewable bonanza hit Vermont we were being powered by Vermont Yankee, and the sentiment was to move away from fossil fuel centered power as quickly as we could.

The result was a wild-west mentality in which all plots of land, and all ridgelines were suitable for use. Legislators were careful to place the power in the hands of the Public Service Board, whose charge is to weigh decisions based on the overall public good. They were careful to avoid circumstances that would allow the NIMBY (not in my back yard) factor to circumvent renewable energy projects.

We were all in. No room for doubt, regret, or reversal.

But when there are no meaningful rules, developers seize the advantage. Why shouldn’t they? It’s cheaper to put a solar park right next to the road and existing services than it is to build it where it is not in the public’s view. Similarly, it’s sometimes cheaper and easier to build wind turbines on ridgelines located near affected populations than is to find other ridgelines far removed. If the money is there, it will be plumbed like an open bank account.

If it’s the practice of the Public Service Board to routinely approve applications then developers will push the envelope until they are told no.

As with any extreme, there is a short shelf life. When a small community in rural Vermont says no, the rest of the state pays little attention. When there are multiple communities saying no, the state does pay attention. That’s what was occupying center stage in Montpelier last Wednesday, Jan. 20. The concern is no longer parochial. It’s widespread.

Even the governor — Mr. Renewable — has begun to recognize the growing concern. He’s called for a halt to industrial scale solar and wind development as something that is counter to the “Vermont way.”

Together, this collective concern is pushing legislators to reconsider the rules by which these projects are sited. Finally.

Mr. Rodgers’ proposal to ban wind projects is too extreme. Why would we ban a form of renewable energy if there were places that work and communities that support it? That sends the wrong message.

A solar siting task force late last week was working on some recommendations as to how the state can move forward. The group is proceeding from the assumption we need to edge closer to local control without giving local boards the power to veto projects. For example, regional and local planning commissions could be the group that figures out where the projects could be sited, which, in advance could mitigate public concern.

Who knows, perhaps incentives are built into the process. If it’s the state’s goal to be at the 90 percent renewable level by 2050, then the best path is one that has the public’s backing. Last Wednesday’s demonstration should make it clear to legislators that the path we’re on isn’t politically sustainable. Giving a meaningful voice to the communities involved is critical, which is something, for example, that Green Mountain Power has embraced as part of all its energy projects. If it’s clear a community overwhelmingly opposes something, GMP doesn’t pursue it or it works out an alternative.

Legislators should not assume local communities are not similarly motivated, and capable. They should task each county with the objective of figuring out their roles and their capacities. They should consider incentives, regulatory or financial, or both. See what they can do.

And they should feel good about it. The goal remains the same. We need to move to renewables. Let’s just use some common sense and some creativity to figure out how to do this with the public’s involvement, not without it.

— Emerson Lynn, St. Albans Messenger

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