Middlebury board signs off on controversial solar array
Although using land to reduce CO2 emissions is a worthy goal, land also serves to absorb runoff from increasingly large rainstorms, maintain habitat diversity, enhance food security, and accommodate changing recreational tastes in the face of a changing climate.
— Middlebury College educators Will Amidon, Molly Anderson and Jeff Howarth
MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday voted 5-2 to endorse a controversial, 5-megawatt solar farm pitched for Middlebury College-owned land off South Street Extension, a project that will soon be reviewed by the Vermont Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
David Provost, the college’s vice president for finance and administration, voiced gratitude for the board’s endorsement and announced the institution is willing to work with the town on a long-range plan that would identify future sites for town-gown renewable energy collaborations.
“We’re committed to a long-term strategy in working with the town … on a renewable commitment for the entire town,” Provost said. “We’d like to come back in January to jump-start a discussion about how we could facilitate and work with the town in identifying not just our solutions, but identifying the lands that the college currently controls to provide a solution to renewable energy sources. (Middlebury College President Laurie Patton) is absolutely committed to getting that work done while she’s here in Middlebury.”
The board’s split vote on Tuesday was emblematic of fractured public opinion on the Encore Renewable Energy plan, calling for around 30 acres of solar panels that would harness clean electricity to meet the goals of Middlebury College’s “Energy 2028” initiative.
Energy 2028 is aimed at helping the institution transition to 100-percent renewable energy sources to power and heat its main campus, reduce its energy consumption by 25 percent by 2028, expand educational opportunities for students to influence the college’s renewable energy priorities, and reduce the college’s investments in fossil fuels.
While virtually all of those who’ve weighed in the solar array have applauded the college for its renewable energy ethos, some have criticized the institution and Encore for siting the project off a stretch of South Street Extension that offers attractive views for the many who walk, cycle and jog there.
Critics have urged the college to instead build the array on another of the eight potential sites the institution and Encore had vetted for the project. Four of those sites were off South Street Extension. The other four were off Route 125, James Road, Route 7 and on land in Middlebury’s industrial park. All of the sites explored are under the college’s control.
But others praised the site selection and expressed hope it would be one of many future solar farms to help the community transition to clean energy sources in a big way.
Selectboard members received substantial verbal and written testimony about the plan during the past two months. The panel had heard a presentation from Encore, and allotted around 90 minutes of their Dec. 10 meeting to area residents wishing to comment on the proposal. Support materials for Tuesday’s meeting included 10 separate letters from people urging the board to support the solar array.
Among the comments in those letters:
• “Although I’m sorry to see pristine Vermont landscapes affected by large-scale energy projects, I’m much sorrier to see the entire Earth being rapidly rendered inhospitable to use by humans and the many other species with which we share our planet.” — Richard Wolfson, Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics, Emeritus, Middlebury College.
• “We are now in a climate emergency; it has arrived. Please recommend approval of this project to the (PUC) without delay, demonstrating the urgency of the emergency in reassuring our youth that we adults care about their futures and are doing something about it, one step at a time.” — former Middlebury Planning Commission Chairman John Barstow.
• “For this piece of Middlebury College’s property, having a solar array is preferable to a number of other alternative development possibilities. As an environmental scientist who had worked with soil and water, I note that the presence of a solar array will essentially create a ‘soil bank,’ helping soil regain and maintain its health, and, at the same time, allowing Otter Creek to continue to occasionally overflow, reducing the potential of downstream flood damages.” — Carol Harden, chair of the Geographical Sciences Committee of the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.
LETTER TO PATTON
The selectboard also reviewed, prior to its deliberations, a letter written by three Middlebury College educators to Patton. The authors — Will Amidon, Molly Anderson and Jeff Howarth — oppose the proposed solar farm site.
“28 acres of solar panels is a major change to any landscape and one that will inevitably impact the community in a variety of ways,” the Dec. 13 letter states. “It thus came as an unwelcome surprise when Encore Renewables abruptly announced a change in their preferred site on September 27, 2019. This gave the town and college communities very little time to react.
“Although using land to reduce CO2 emissions is a worthy goal, land also serves to absorb runoff from increasingly large rainstorms, maintain habitat diversity, enhance food security, and accommodate changing recreational tastes in the face of a changing climate,” the letter continues. “We would thus like to see the solar array be sited as part of a more thorough planning process that considers the land’s suitability for these different purposes and that engages both the college and town communities throughout the process of evaluation.”
Opponents recently filed a petition signed by 57 people urging the selectboard to reject the South Street Extension site.
“This proposed solar array is massive in scale and inappropriate for this location,” the petition reads. “We ask the selectboard to urge Middlebury College, Encore Renewable Energy and Green Mountain Power to preserve this South Street Extension viewshed and to site the proposed 5-Megawatt solar array in a location with less impact on the community.”
Selectmen Victor Nuovo and Farhad Khan voted against endorsing the array at the South Street Extension site. They argued the college should table the project in order to give the community more input in its planning. Nuovo suggested the college postpone the project until the town and college have agreed on a long-term renewable energy plan.
But Provost said the college wants to move ahead with the South Street Extension array in order to fulfill what he said was a commitment to students to take care of its renewable energy needs.
“We didn’t conclude that by stopping this project and waiting (until a long-range energy plan) is complete, that we would be meeting and addressing our needs, which we think is a greater crisis,” he said. “We’ve heard from students that they believe this is a generational crisis and that our generation has put upon them.”
Provost added the college in 2023 is slated to lose carbon credits associated with conserved forestland on and near its Bread Loaf campus.
“This is an important project to the college in its effort to go beyond carbon-neutrality and find 100-percent renewable solutions for both our thermal and electrical (needs),” Provost told the board. “We see ourselves as a leader in this space and the need to find locally sourced renewable solutions is a critical component of what President (Laurie) Patton and the board (of trustees) have committed to.”
Provost said the college has no problem adhering to the conditions the Middlebury Planning Commission places on its support of the project.
They include that the final design shall make use of pollinators, that the project be muted by “enhanced screening” predominately of mature plantings, that the college agrees to allow “limited and appropriate public use” of the property surrounding the array, that the project include battery backup to provide electricity to Porter Hospital in an emergency, and that the array not be further expanded toward South Street Extension.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.
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