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Opinion: Solar energy projects should be done properly

Duane Peterson’s Nov. 2 op-ed in the Independent, “Like barns & silos, solar power changes the land; but it’s necessary,”  suggested that raising questions about the solar business was an indicator of opposition to renewable energy.
In his piece, Mr. Peterson wrote “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.” That statement suggests companies such as SunCommon are motivated by altruism and not the pursuit of profit.
Though we agree that, when done right, solar energy is something that we can feel good about, the solar industry is still a business that is concerned with profit.
It is safe to say Vermonters agree that renewable energy is the way to go. However, with the tax incentives, energy credits, and the governor’s desire to have “90 percent renewable energy by 2050” it feels the rush to build is prompted by a lot more than altruism.
Recently, my husband and I moved from Cleveland and we chose to live in the quiet, rural town of Addison. The previous owners of our house had solar panels and we look forward to making use of the system in the future. We are excited about solar, but we’ve had a crash course in the “wild, wild west” of the solar business in the last six months that was not detailed in Mr. Peterson’s op-ed.
Our neighbors have land that backs directly up to our land and have decided to pursue a CSA solar array through SunCommon. It sounds wonderful except the array encroaches on our property — closer to our house than theirs. The CSA installation would alter the view for which we bought the house and would most likely affect our home’s value and potential resale ability.
In his op-ed, Mr. Peterson states “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 proposed array in our “backyard” would affect a wetland, is in the area of the Indiana bat and our home is a historic site.
Mr. Peterson stated that “of course a neighbor who wants to preserve a view over land they don’t own is welcome to offer to buy the property.” That was not an option in our case. The deal made to our neighbors by SunCommon was too good to pass up and would provide their “retirement plan” as they told us. We were not offered the option of buying the land. Solar companies are offering land owners $20,000 up front for a 20-year “lease” which far exceeds what we would pay for an acre of land.
Mr. Peterson states that SunCommon “abides 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.” That was not the case with SunCommon and their planned array. We had to track down SunCommon, send emails, ask for information including site plans and in the end we were told that if we would not agree with this project they would be happy to discuss future solar options. In other words, they could sell us something.
Mr. Peterson stated that “the permit process runs a solar site through a host of parameters” such as “local town planning commissions and town select boards.” That is not true in every case. In ours, they bypassed the Town of Addison select board and went directly to the Public Service Board for a Certificate of Public Good. If my husband and I wanted to build a large fence around our property we would be required to go the select board and our neighbors would have a say, but SunCommon has the right to build a 150 kW solar array without a need to consult the neighbors or town government.
Like most people, my husband and I had no idea what we had to do to become part of the discussion. We learned that we had to become experts in Vermont’s PSB process and we had to file a legalistic Motion to Intervene (you can read it online at vce.org/Allen_Suncommon_150kW_PSB_Intervention_Nov62015.pdf).
Mr. Peterson argues that “power poles and lines, gas stations, utility substations, propane yards, are a visible part of our social fabric” and yet almost all commercial and industrial developments are subject to zoning regulations and restrictions approved by select boards and citizens. So, “yes” there are visible gas stations, but, because a town has the authority to decide what “orderly development” means within its boundaries, we don’t have a string of gas stations along Route 22A. Most people prefer not to live next to ten gas stations.
We live in an area zoned “rural residential with an emphasis on agriculture.” We thought it was a safe assumption when we purchased our house, that the 10-acre field behind us would not be developed — after all it contained a wetland. But, even a wetland in an agricultural field can be industrialized through Vermont’s PSB and a CPG. When a town’s jurisdiction is usurped for the PSB a town such as Addison loses the right to regulate and zone accordingly.
In a state that upholds Act 250 as a reason we have a tourism industry why would we not have more discussions. My husband and I moved from an area where a rash of poor decisions in the housing industry boom affected the property values of the entire city. It would seem prudent to not rush to meet the tax credit deadlines and to slow down and consider the placement of the arrays, the amount of total energy generated, who is actually signing up for and using the potential CSA, and how the arrays will affect property values and the views we wish to maintain.
We do not oppose renewable energy, when done right. But, we’re not sure SunCommon is really interested in doing it right.
Rev. Dr. Stephanie Allen
Addison

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