Editorial: New Haven's push on solar policy points to a better way to advance industry's growth

The passion that drives the renewable energy movement can be, ironically, its own worst enemy.

A few years ago champions of wind energy found themselves in a heated battle with the citizens and towns in the Northeast Kingdom. Wind advocates, so sure of their pure intent, failed to understand the aesthetic damage and the community opposition. After two projects were built, the opposition against more projects was so great that Gov. James Douglas withdrew his support and wind development flat-lined.

Today’s battleground is solar farms. In an effort to jump start the solar industry and take advantage of federal subsidies, Gov. Peter Shumlin has promoted what is essentially fast-track authorization of solar projects. That has meant circumventing the Act 250 review and, as a result, significantly cutting the public out of the siting process. This has lead to howls of protests from neighbors who abut solar installations and cries from towns about a loss of control over commercial development.

It’s a battle that could be settled by a civil dialogue, if rational goals were outlined. What should never have happened is giving developers the rights to site projects in violation of town plans, without regard to setbacks or screening, and without an effective avenue for public participation that could instill the will of the community.

What’s at issue here is not the classic example of NIMBYism, in which an individual objects to a community good, but rather an entire community’s sense of outrage when solar developments change the aesthetic of a landscape. Town residents should have the right to define setbacks and screening so commercial projects don’t become so prolific as to significantly degrade what residents might call a cultural sense of place.

It is important to note that these objections to solar projects are not a blanket rejection of solar power, but rather pleas to establish the appropriate development of those projects. Solar developers should be comfortable in the knowledge that Vermonters largely embrace renewable energy, understand the threat of climate change and are willing to make positive changes. But Vermonters also have a strong desire to protect and preserve the beautiful vistas that define our state. Neither is exclusive of the other.

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Hopefully, change is coming.

Last week the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee added a provision to H.40, the state’s renewable energy bill, that would allow towns more authority to establish bylaws to provide for setbacks and screening for solar projects. If passed, those provisions would become effective July 1, 2016. Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, chairman of that committee, said he incorporated the provision in H.40 as a compromise measure: It assured communities the Legislature would look at adding more community control down the road without slowing down development efforts for at least the next year. As a halfway measure, the result is as expected: it satisfies few and annoys most.

While the measure passed in the Senate committee 4-1, it has the solar energy and renewable energy advocates saying that they may withdraw their support of H.40, while communities (like New Haven) are complaining that the development pressures are heaviest now and that a year delay is too late.

Meanwhile, environmental advocates and renewable energy companies are pushing back against any measures that may slow development.

Gabrielle Stebbins, executive director for Renewable Energy Vermont, said the group might withdraw its support of the entire renewable energy bill if the compromise measure is included. The reason? She suggests towns might adopt setback and screening standards so stringent that they might effectively prohibit solar developments — even though the bill expressly stipulates that such measures would not be allowed.

Still, Stebbins persists: “It (the provision to allow towns to adopt setbacks and screening measures) will make it more uncertain for development,” she told the Senate committee, as if promoting the growth of the solar industry had priority over the state’s aesthetics. “It will essentially make our state (renewable energy) goals far more difficult to reach.”

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Whoa. Time to step back from the edge and relax.

Supporters of renewable energy might even want to ask themselves just how liberal-minded, environmental activists are on the side of an energy industry that is reluctant to allow Vermont communities to establish rational, and easily definable, setback and screening requirements.

These are not insurmountable issues.

In any other environment, progressive-minded Vermonters would be championing local control and measures to protect a homeowner’s sense of sanctity and the state’s rural charm.

What doesn’t work is when solar industry leaders suggest that their world will collapse if they are asked to comply with appropriate screening of projects if they are visually offensive.

What doesn’t make sense is having small solar farms scattered pell-mell across the countryside (and most heavily concentrated next to state highways with three-phrase power nearby) in what just might be the most costly and unsightly way to grow the solar industry.

Rather, what makes sense is to support changes to H.40 as soon as possible that puts towns on a common footing with the solar industry. What makes sense is to develop rational setback and screening standards so the state’s scenic beauty is preserved, while also promoting renewable energy production. What makes sense is to encourage towns to develop solar zones, or solar farms, within town plans so that cost-efficiency is promoted, scenic vistas are preserved and intelligent planning is rewarded.

That’s not an unrealistic goal, but it will require all sides (including the Shumlin administration) to hit the reset button and start over with a more balanced agenda — growth of renewables, while also preserving local control and the state’s aesthetic. It was never meant to be an either-or scenario.

Angelo S. Lynn

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Addison County Independent

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Middlebury, VT 05753

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