Top stories of 2015: #3 — Solar arrays abound, siting challenged
The debate continued — and to some degree intensified — in 2015 over the value and aesthetics of ground-based solar arrays as more were installed or proposed locally from as far north as Ferrisburgh to as far south as Brandon.
Legal challenges were filed by the town of New Haven and residents of Ferrisburgh; solar-specific bylaws were adopted or considered in several towns, including Cornwall, New Haven and Middlebury; questions were raised about whether Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) were being sold in or out of Vermont; and some wondered why panels could not be installed on buildings rather than on potentially useful agricultural land.
Meanwhile, solar power backers pointed out that the energy generated remained cleaner than fossil-fuel alternatives.
New Haven remained the center of the debate, and not only geographically. As well as adopting zoning to insist that solar developers screen arrays — something now allowed under a provision of Act 56, passed this past spring by the Legislature —New Haven in April hired an attorney to challenge the Public Service Board, which oversees and approves solar arrays and other energy projects.
New Haven argued that its town plan gives the community the power to regulate utility projects such as solar arrays in a case that could set a precedent.
In October, Ferrisburgh neighbors of an array on Basin Harbor Club property won a Vermont Supreme Court case against the Public Service Board, but only on procedural grounds. The court held the PSB improperly and unfairly ruled that an array neighbor was not a party to the PSB procedures.
Remaining at issue were questions such as whether the array was improperly built near historic homes, and more importantly whether a PSB definition of an “average” person who would be offended by an array was flawed. The PSB has held in approving arrays that neighbors cannot be called “average” because they live near arrays — and the neighbors are challenging that logic. Whether developments are offensive to an average person is a key component of Vermont zoning law.
While the fine points are debated, the proposals, mostly for 150- or 500-kilowatt arrays — with some at 1 megawatt or 2 megawatts — kept rolling in from private developers and from Green Mountain Power.
For example, among them were several in Panton; a half-dozen for Ferrisburgh, two of which on Route 7 are under way; one in Cornwall that was abandoned after some opposition and a town meeting that led to the adoption of interim solar zoning; another in Shoreham; a handful in Middlebury; and eight on the books for New Haven, one a 27-acre plan.
A proposed solar array on the Brandon-Florence line could be the largest in the state. In October developers said they wanted to build a 20-megawatt array on more than 100 acres at a cost of roughly $29 million. Later in the year they scaled back a little.
Will the flood of proposals continue in 2016? An update to the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan, due to be finalized this week, mandates a huge increase in renewable power over the next 35 years that could see as many as 13,000 more acres of solar arrays across Vermont — a 13-fold increase.