Opinion: Green energy, views can coexist
Vermonters can feel proud that we are out in front on many environmental issues including climate change. But as the push for more renewable energy continues, choices among types of renewable energy have been made that may result in the unnecessary scarring of thousands of acres of our landscape. Mercenary armies of solar developers, abetted by special interests, have flocked to Vermont to reap financial rewards from subsidies and Investment Tax Credits.
While there are solar developers who are sensitive to the wishes of communities in which their installations might be hosted, there are those that purport to have “good neighbor policies” which in practice they have not followed. Horrendous conduct by some developers have fanned the flames of discontent so that many new commercial solar energy projects are facing push-back from communities in which these projects are to be sited.
Increasing our solar energy capacity has come at a cost of the degradation of our scenic environment, a schism between state government and municipalities, and a distortion of political process in Montpelier. An unbiased observer must admit that all is not well with the roll-out of renewable energy in our state as we cannot seem to find the right balance between disfiguring our land and responding to climate change.
So if a majority of Vermonters respect the environment, why is there so much conflict over the development of renewable sources of energy that are necessary to get us off carbon-based energy sources threatening to cook the planet? What are the circumstances and issues raising the ire of citizens and municipalities impacted by solar projects? How did this all come to be? What can be done about it?
1) For over forty years Act 250 protected Vermont and Vermonters from the effects of development through an application process that addresses the environmental and community impacts of projects that exceed a threshold in size. But when it comes to energy generation Act 250 is trumped by Section 248, and this difference in the project approval process created our tug-of-war over solar. The root of the problem is that Section 248 was intended to deal with very large public utility energy generation and is inappropriate for regulating small-scale distributed energy projects. The Public Service Board (PSB) is empowered by law in Section 248 to override town plans or zoning laws by stating it is in “the public good” to go forward with an energy generation project that is out of compliance with regulations voted upon by a municipality’s citizens or which may be seen as obnoxious by those around it. As the number of solar projects proliferate, this issue alone is sufficient to create a struggle between the state and its local governments since the state is usurping power that used to belong to municipalities. By overriding local zoning laws, Section 248 has removed a property owner’s protection against a neighbor’s behavior that could negatively impact his or her property values.
2) In response to issues with the previous renewable energy law, the state legislature recently passed Act 56 (H.40), which permits a setback limit of only 25 feet from a neighbor’s property line for ground-mounted solar arrays ten feet tall and covering one acre of land. In my town, a small shed must be setback 75 feet from a property line. The concept that a monstrous commercial solar project should be allowed a lesser setback than a tiny shed is an affront to common sense.
3) Screening requirements for solar installations prior to Act 56 were nonexistent. The jury is still out on how the PSB will react to towns’ setting their own screening requirements as are now allowed. But the many loopholes in this law make it likely that poorly sited and screened projects may still get PSB approval.
4) Many solar developers have done a pathetic job at fulfilling their commitments to screen their projects from neighbors and the community, and there is nothing to suggest that they will correct their bad behavior. Completed projects with virtually no screening are not uncommon, and there’s one where six foot tall trees were planted 50 feet apart as a token gesture towards screening.
5) Current legislation permits developers of 150 kW solar projects, aka CSA’s, to avoid the more onerous approval processes required of larger solar projects. This special treatment allows for a much faster approval time, smaller setback limits, and lack of proper decommissioning sureties and has resulted in numbers of 150 kW projects that often produce more public anger than their relatively small number of kilowatts is worth.
In summary, the improperly regulated solar expansion threatens the esthetic character of towns, and puts property values of homes near poorly sited or screened projects in jeopardy. It is only natural for people to fight to preserve the value of what is likely their largest investment. When folks who want solar-at-any-cost confronted the position of people who felt their homes were being threatened by solar, the battle began, and unfortunately our legislators did next to nothing in the 2015 session to correct the problem.
How were things allowed to get like this?
In response to climate change and its relationship to carbon-based sources of energy, Vermonters responded in a very positive way by adopting a schedule for replacing fossil-fuel energy sources with renewable energy. In their desire to “do the right thing”, Vermonters unwittingly ceded control of their towns and esthetic environment to politicians and special interests who were willing to ride the crest of citizens’ environmental concern. In 2011 when the Comprehensive Energy Plan was passed and included the goal of reaching 90 percent renewable energy by 2050, it seemed like a good thing. But by 2012 project siting problems were already obvious, and “The Governor’s Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission” was created. The results of that commission’s work were limited, unimpressive, and not adhered to.
Along the way, our government in Montpelier seems to have developed a preference for solar over wind and hydro projects. Having politicians picking winners and losers in areas of technology rarely ends well, and in this case raises the question of why there is an emphasis on solar when we live in a state with scant hours of sunshine (Vermont has 2,295 hours of sunshine annually, second lowest of any state in the country).
In my view, much of our situation is political. We have a number of instances in which legislators have moved into positions in state agencies. In 2013 Governor Shumlin appointed Margaret Cheney to the Public Service Board. Ms. Cheney previously was the Vice Chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee and is now in a position to approve projects engendered by legislation she helped write. Ms. Cheney is also the wife of Rep. Peter Welch, who is pushing in Congress for the renewal of solar subsides. In addition, industry lobbyists have had an undue negative impact on policy.
This situation is best represented by an iron triangle involving state legislators, state agencies, industry lobbyists aligned with a powerful environmental lobby, and wealthy investors seeking a subsidized rate of return. The iron triangle is a unique relationship between the bureaucracy, the legislature, and lobbyists that results in the mutual benefit of all three of them. It is only fair to acknowledge that many of the people working in our state bureaucracy are very bright, hard-working and decent public servants, but they are part of the iron triangle. It is what it is.
Representative Tony Klein, Chairman of the Vermont House Committee on Natural Resource and Energy, has put in many years of hard work on energy related matters. However it is a bit troubling that as early as 2007 he was recognized and honored by Renewable Energy Vermont (REV), the solar and wind industry mouthpiece and key lobbying organization. Mr. Klein is primarily responsible for the creation of H.40 which became Act 56, doubling down on the pro-solar policies in place via previous legislation. In spite of promises Mr. Klein made during the past legislative session, his committee did not pass a bill regarding the siting and screening of solar projects.
Senator Chris Bray, is the Chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy. His committee did little to change H.40 created in the house, but in March of this year he did initiate a joint Senate-House public hearing on renewable energy siting. Unfortunately the voices of the public were allowed to be drowned out by those in the solar industry. Of the 56 people who spoke at the hearing, twenty-one of them came from SunCommon alone.
Special Interest Groups
REV (Renewable Energy Vermont), a nonprofit trade organization, is the renewables industry major lobbying entity. It is a huge force in bending state energy policy in its favor. Like the big-tobacco lobbies, REV pushes its agenda while dismissing negative outcomes to the community at large. REV has a seat on the newly formed Solar Siting Task Force headed by Chris Recchia, Commissioner of the Department of Public Service.
VPIRG, the not-for-profit Vermont Public Interest Group, is the state’s largest consumer and environmental organization. VPIRG’s approach to solar energy is virtually the same as REV’s, “solar everywhere at any cost.” VPIRG is headed by Paul Burns whose wife, Alyssa Schuren serves as Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation Agency of Natural Resources. VPIRG is where SunCommon was born. It frequently serves as the training ground for future SunCommon employees. Duane Peterson, Co-President of SunCommon, is a Trustee of VPIRG. Matthew Rubin is also a Trustee of VPIRG, and he serves on the SunCommon Board of Advisors and is a Board Member of REV. There are times at which employees of VPIRG and SunCommon seem indistinguishable.
It would be wise if we Vermonters realize the dangers of special interests operating in Montpelier and hold our legislators accountable for the energy policies they enable.
So what can be done to get us back on track to achieve our renewable energy goals without social and environmental degradation? Here are a few ideas:
• Compel each municipality to provide an amount of renewable energy in proportion with its population. This would not only avoid the problems of overburdening certain towns, but it would also be in better alignment with the state’s goals for a distributed energy grid. More energy would be produced close to where it is consumed.
• If municipalities are made responsible for providing their share of the state’s renewable energy, it should be left to municipal governments to create siting and screening regulations they deem necessary and appropriate.
• If a municipality wishes to produce more renewable energy than its required share, it should be remunerated in a way that brings additional funds into the town.
• Treat the application approval process the same for all renewable energy projects over 50 kW.
• The legislature and state agencies should perform an annual cost-benefit analysis of emerging technologies, such as HVDC cabling. High Voltage Direct Current cabling could bring into Vermont 400 MW of power generated by wind and hydro in upstate New York and Canada at a cost about half of what we pay for the most efficient solar energy while sparing the disfigurement of 4,000 acres of the Vermont landscape.
• In order to stop the current solar gold rush, we should consider a moratorium on new solar installations until the Solar Siting Task Force has delivered its recommendations this coming January and until the legislature passes legislation that corrects most of the defects in our existing energy policy.