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Opinion: Like barns and silos, solar power changes the landscape; and it’s necessary

This week’s writer is Duane Peterson, co-president of the Waterbury solar power company SunCommon.
Peter Rothschild’s op-ed “Green energy, views can coexist” (Addison Independent, Oct. 5) alleges there is a Vermont network working to transform our energy economy away from burning climate-killing fossil fuels toward a clean energy future. Yes, I confess.
Vermonters have elected public officials who reflect our views. U.S. Senators Leahy and Sanders, Rep. Welch, Gov. Shumlin and majorities of both legislative houses all are strong proponents of clean energy.
Indeed, Vermonters are innovating market-solutions to climate change by building businesses that offer clean energy solutions to our neighbors. In addition to combatting climate change, let’s not forget the incredible economic benefit the clean energy economy brings to our state. Per capita, our state employs more solar workers than any other of the United States, and these are good jobs with solid wages and benefits. Over 16,000 Vermonters are employed by the clean energy sector, with solar employment celebrating 21 percent growth in the past year.
And yes, Vermonters come together in organizations to confront the vast powers of the dominant oil and coal companies. The fossil fuel industry’s vast monetary interests direct Congress, the national security they control and the enormous federal tax breaks the fossil fuel industry enjoys in perpetuity. Committed groups like Greenpeace globally, the Sierra Club nationally and VPIRG here in our beloved Vermont give voice to the majority who demand an end to climate destruction and the transformation to clean energy.
So it’s true that Vermonters by the thousands are eagerly generating clean energy at our homes, businesses, houses of worship, schools and farms.
We’re proud of the decades of commitment that got us this far. But as Vice President Al Gore told a packed house at UVM recently, we all must step up the pace to protect our planet and we humans who inhabit it.
Some like Mr. Rothschild call for a stop to the clean energy revolution. He doesn’t want to see the new energy infrastructure that is needed to reverse climate destruction. The landscape we enjoy was crafted and manipulated by our populace over the course of hundreds of years and many, many generations. From asphalt roads to rural electrification lining our roadways to the introduction of tall, metal silos dotting the landscape, our imprint upon our landscape is constantly changing to support the people that inhabit it. Now, with the introduction of renewable energy on our landscape we adapt again.
The existing energy infrastructure is not invisible. Power poles and lines, gas stations, utility substations, propane yards are visible parts of our social fabric. No one calls for those energy assets to be somehow shielded from view. The transition to clean energy will be visible as well.
Vermont law protects the right of property owners to grow the crops they want to. The law allows a property owner to build a long, multi-story barn, or a towering silo. Of course a neighbor who wants to preserve a view over land they don’t own is welcome to offer to buy the property. Vermont law doesn’t let someone prohibit their neighbor from using their property to plant solar as the newest cash crop and create a revenue stream to allow them to stay on their land.
Siting clean energy turns out to be really challenging. Technical considerations vastly limit where solar and wind equipment can effectively produce energy. Solar panels need unshaded space, at strong power lines, next to paved roads to accommodate construction equipment, away from wetlands and endangered species and historic sites. The permitting process runs each solar site through a host of parameters as we work with such agencies as Vermont Land Trust, Agency of Agriculture, Public Service Board, Department of Public Service, local utilities, Vermont Division of Historic Preservation, Agency of Natural Resources, local town planning commissions and town selectboards.
So once whittled down to where clean energy can actually work, we can have a respectful conversation about how it’s implemented. It’s true, there are not enough viable rooftops in Vermont to support the amount of clean energy our state needs. Depending on the particulars of a community solar site, there can be flexibility on exactly where the equipment is placed. Landscaping can add to its attractiveness. Mixed uses can be explored, like grazing or bee-keeping on the site.
My business, SunCommon, is a Vermont Benefit Corporation that starts with the belief that everyone deserves a healthy environment and a safer world — and clean energy is where it starts. We’re not quite four years old, and are learning as we go even as we’ve helped over 2,000 of our fellow Vermonters be part of the clean energy revolution.
Our Community Solar Array (CSA) innovation provides a solar solution for Vermonters who don’t want or can’t host solar at their own homes — through CSA hosts who provide a slice of their land to the community array. We abide by a Good Neighbor Agreement, which calls for us to work with communities and neighbors through community meetings and workshops to place these arrays where most appropriate. The public conversation is happening. Please join us.
This energy transformation needs to happen now. Former Vice President Al Gore reminded us that humans, including Vermonters, pour 110 million tons of climate-damaging CO2 into our atmosphere every day. He told us that precious atmosphere that makes our planet inhabitable, so far unique in the entire universe, is so thin that a car driven at highway speed away from land would reach the edge of the atmosphere in about 10 minutes. A fragile blanket indeed that we humans are ruining by our addiction to digging up fossilized fuels and burning them in the atmosphere.
Vermonters are responding to this climate crisis — knowing that the transition away from climate-killing fuels toward clean energy will not be easy, quick or invisible. We should be proud of this amazing network of elected officials, activists, faith leaders, homegrown businesses and farmers in our beloved state together bringing about this needed change. Our climate, which we depend on to sustain life, depends on our success. 

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