ADDISON COUNTY — Few except oil company executives or their wholly owned politicians disagree that the nation — and the world — needs more clean, renewable energy.
But, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details, especially when those details include where solar and wind power facilities should be sited — a big detail in Vermont, where views are not only prized by residents, but also by the tourists who help fuel the state’s economy.
One Vermont resident or developer’s noble contribution to the fight against global warming can be another’s outrageous crime against nature, particularly if it’s a wind turbine on a ridgeline, a solar array near a boundary line, or an array that maybe could be screened better by the addition of more landscaping or thoughtful placement on its host lot. Or one proposed in a town that already hosts many such arrays — say New Haven, for example.
Many Vermont towns like New Haven clamored for more say over alternative energy project siting, which until this year was entirely controlled by the Vermont Public Service Board. The PSB did take testimony from towns and residents, but held all the cards in making the final decision.
Finally, a bill championed by Addison County Sen. Chris Bray (S-230) was passed in 2016. It requires the PSB to consider a town’s local siting priorities, if the community has energy standards included in its town plan that are approved by the Vermont Department of Public Service.
By the end of the year a number of county towns had adopted such energy plans, many based on a template created by the Addison County Regional Planning Commission. Others including New Haven, were scrambling to put one in place.
Meanwhile, in New Haven two solar proposals in particular generated controversy.
In one case, the town in June took the PSB to the Supreme Court, contending that the PSB had acted “in violation of its own rules” in a recent decision granting a Certificate of Public Good to a 500-kilowatt array on the Russell Farm off Route 7. The court had yet to rule by year’s end.
In the other, the three members of the PSB visited the Field Days Road site of another proposal to see for themselves what the issues were — even though their own hearing officer had signed off an approval more than a year before. They received an earful from New Haven residents and officials. The PSB had yet to issue a decision by late December.
In Ferrisburgh, neighbors of an array erected by the Basin Harbor Club are involved in a lengthy battle with the PSB and the club. One Vermont Supreme Court decision went in neighbors’ favor, but the larger questions remain unresolved.
The alternative energy issues are clouded further by a debate surrounding the economic incentives favoring wind and solar. Projects earn Renewable Energy Credits, or RECs, that are often sold out of state, leading some critics to question whether the arrays really help Vermont reach its renewable-energy goals even if the clean power is being generated within its borders.
Despite the disputes, many solar projects went forward around the county, none bigger than the 4.99-megawatt array Green Mountain Power was completing in a field in northern Panton as the year wrapped up.
Other arrays were built, expanded or proposed in Brandon, Ferrisburgh and New Haven, and St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Vergennes had a substantial array installed on its rooftop, a plan to which no one objected. Rooftop arrays in general proved to be increasingly popular.
In Weybridge at year’s end a Minneapolis developer proposed another 4.99-megawatt array, a plan that drew a crowd of 40 to an informational meeting. Most of those who spoke at that gathering objected. In the waning days of December the newspaper got word that a different developer wanted to erect a similar-size solar array in Bristol off Route 116 south of the village.
While the Vermont discussion went back and forth, the climate paid little attention: In mid-November, the World Meteorological Organization announced that 2016 would probably go down as the hottest in recorded history.