Op/Ed

Climate Matters: Learning to love ugly

MIKE ROY

9th in a series

This summer several tons of steel, glass and silicon will arrive near my side yard. This will be assembled, noisily, into a 30-acre power plant that will reduce my employer Middlebury College’s reliance on the electricity it currently buys from Green Mountain Power by thousands of kilowatts a year. That’s great. But I fear this pile of steel and glass will ruin my view. And the value of my property. And my “quality of life.” Others worry that it will also disrupt the lives of the birds and other living things that currently reside in this neighborhood. I’m told by people I respect that if I were more enlightened, I would welcome this intrusion. That people who “get it” see beauty in solar farms.

Before I get much further, I need to declare that having a large solar plant installed in my neighborhood is not the worst thing that can happen. It isn’t like living downwind from a carcinogen-spewing coal plant, or having your ancestral lands flooded to create “green” hydropower, or having the planet you live on become uninhabitable because people like me didn’t like having their views disturbed. So there’s that.

And yet I want to reflect on the notion of pastoral beauty, and what we need to do to have people like me react to these projects not with “not in my backyard” but with “yes, please, in my backyard.” Because these sorts of projects must become more common, and we can’t spend precious time debating endlessly their necessity or their beauty. We can no longer delay or try to tuck out of sight these very large and, yes, ugly installations. We can do this by focusing our attention on education, design and community.

Education: How much are we aware, as individuals, and as a community, of the urgent need to increase the number and scale of solar farms in order for us to transition away from fossil fuels? Where are the conversations taking place in our communities about the options and trade-offs around converting our open land into power plants? How much are we also factoring in how decarbonization fits into our long-term land use plans as a town and a county and a state? What does climate change on a global scale mean for the demographics of our state? And what are the needs of our nonhuman neighbors? Maybe I should have been paying more attention, but it came to me as a complete surprise that the landscape I so treasure needed to change, and right now, in order to confront the existential threat that is climate change. Am I alone in not paying such close attention, and being quite unpleasantly caught unawares? I suspect not. Unless I am anomalous, there is urgent work to be done to keep the next neighborhood from crying foul and slowing down progress when an unexpected and unwanted solar plant neighbor is announced. Whose job is it to do this education, understanding that the education needed is for both citizens, and also for those promoting these changes?

Design & Economics: As I travel these days, knowing that I will soon be living with a large and most likely quite ugly solar plant as a neighbor, I’ve taken to looking more carefully at the various solar plants that are cropping up with increasing frequency in our county. I find that, if you squint just right, the small scale residential and the smallish scale commercial installations can sometimes be pretty good looking. I suspect that some of this has to do with scale. And how they are sited in the landscape. And how they are experienced as you encounter them either on foot or in a vehicle traveling at speed.

In witnessing (but not participating) in the design process of my new neighbor the solar plant, I didn’t meet any landscape architects on the developer’s payroll thinking about how this will be experienced by those who will live and play nearby. I found plenty of engineers and financial people who talked about efficiency and how to maximize output for the lowest cost. And people clever with Photoshop who produced highly stylized visualizations that I am most certain do not reflect how the plant will actually look. I know that I would have greater faith that my new neighbor the solar plant might actually be beautiful if there were people on the team designing the plant who actually thought about beauty, and understood that beauty has a cost, and sometimes, maybe most times, that cost is worth it.

While I acknowledge that we are in a genuine crisis, I also put forward that despite the undeniable fact that we face a global threat to our existence, and need to move very quickly, we also need to pay more, not less, attention to design. We and all who come after us will live with the design decisions we make as we confront this climate catastrophe. We should do all we can do to put forward actually beautiful designs, which yes, will cost more. Doing so will make the process of transforming our landscape not just acceptable but desirable. People like beautiful things. Let’s make beautiful solar plants.

Community, or Why My Farts Don’t Stink: There is science behind the folk wisdom that our own farts don’t stink. We don’t find our own farts disgusting because our farts are part of us. We have evolved an ability to filter out those disgusting things that our own bodies produce. The alternative is to find ourselves in a battle with our own bodies over our emissions. That’s a battle that we are bound to lose.

When I think about the intrusion of a solar plant into my view shed, it isn’t a stretch to think of it as a fart. And this particular fart arose not from me, not from my community, but from a deal that was struck between my employer and a solar developer. It didn’t arise from a community process of talking through how our town can decide where to place the hundreds, and if we are being honest, thousands of acres of solar panels we will need to wean ourselves very quickly off of fossil fuels. And from my front-row view of how our town leaders responded to the proposal to build this unsightly solar plant, it was clear that these leaders were asleep at the wheel. There had been no planning at the town or county level about how to “go green” in a thoughtful yet assertive manner. In the absence of a plan, our town government was happy to check the box of making progress without having done the hard work of talking as a town, as a county, as a community about how to do this in a fair, equitable and inclusive manner. If there had been a process that included the community in a meaningful way, I suspect that this particular fart might have smelt like our own fart, and therefore not smelt nearly as much.

We are in the midst of a landscape transformation. It is one that pits our old notions of beauty defined by fields of corn to feed cows that will burp our way into our oblivion against our not-yet-fully formed notions of beauty that arise from an understanding that our future, and the planet’s future, depend on our coming to terms, and, yes, even coming to love, all of that steel and glass and silicon that will save us from our otherwise most certain doom.

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Mike Roy has lived in Middlebury since 2008. He is dean of the library at Middlebury College and serves on the college’s Energy 2028 Steering Committee, focusing on data-driven efforts to increase accountability, and the integration of energy data analysis into the broader curriculum.

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