by Carla Occaso
I am not a biologist, ecologist or scientist, but neither are the members of the Solar Siting Task Force. The task force was formed at the end of the legislative session to figure out where to put all the solar plants in order to achieve the aggressive increase of renewable energy mandated by Act 56. They had their first meeting on July 28. Reports out of that meeting from multiple sources (from outside news reports to letters to The Bridge) reflect controversy erupting over where all the new solar panels and wind towers are going, who benefits financially and who gets to decide.
Here’s my worry: all the talk about building large-scale solar power plants to gather alternative energy in effort to stop or slow climate change is causing people to vacate their senses and adopt an air of panic akin to the California Gold Rush. I guess I retain a 1970s ideology, but shouldn’t “disrupting” our fragile ecology be a last resort after all other measures have failed? The last issue of The Bridge featured an article by scientist/science teacher and Montpelier City Council member Anne Watson, showing how Montpelier is leading the way in reducing our carbon footprint without an over development of renewable power plants. Why destroy an undetermined but immense-sounding chunk of land for the purpose of electricity generation without first thoroughly examining how to conserve what we have?
Deb Markowitz, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources and a member of the siting committee, was kind enough to return my call and give me some some facts and figures. Markowitz said the committee estimated 3,000 acres would be needed for the build out, perhaps fewer if wind towers were part of the plan. Three thousand acres is the same size as about 15-and-a-half Hubbard Parks (at 194 acres each) or 10-and-a-half Berlin Ponds (286 acres each). But this amount did not seem to daunt Markowitz, who said, “I believe there is plenty of room on the landscape for wildlife and water quality, as well as meeting our interest in reducing our greenhouse gas contributions by deploying more local renewable energy.” Markowitz also said she has biologists to look out for wildlife.
Biologist Mark Scott is the division director of wildlife for the Agency of Natural Resources. Scott said via phone to The Bridge that one of the problems with solar siting is that the ideal site for solar panels is grassland, which is the only home for some field nesting birds such as the bobolink and the meadowlark. Scott said less than four percent of Vermont’s land could be classified as grassland. I asked Scott, “Where are there places (for solar panels) that won’t disturb ecology?”
“Well, on a roof,” he said. He also said he noticed panels in the unused chunks of land by the entrance and exit ramps on the highway in Massachusetts.
Markowitz said she and the committee have been encouraging rooftop solar siting as well.
Thinking back to the 1970s and developing Williston’s open fields into the giant mall sprawl it is today, Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier and chair of the House Natural Resources Committee said, “If it had been required of Williston to provide rooftop generation, we could have prolonged the Northwest Transmission project for 10 years.”
Now we know. Why don’t we use what we know to protect the next 10 years and beyond? Act 56 requires Vermont utilities increase use of renewable energy from “55 percent of a utility’s sales in 2017 to 75 percent in 2032,” according to the summary on the legislative website. So there is some time, and it is clear not all the energy has to come from giant solar power plants. “The act states that energy transformation projects may include home weatherization or other thermal energy efficiency measures, air source or geothermal heat pumps and other measures,” the legislative summary states. So, if the task force uses creative thinking, they could use the time and money they might otherwise use ruining the small remaining patches of undeveloped land to weatherize and convert heating sources on existing buildings throughout the state rather than upsetting everyone — beast and fowl — with gigantic fields of solar panels and behemoth wind towers.
Klein said he had been involved in renewable energy efforts at the legislative level for a long time and that bills relating to increasing alternative sources for generating power always get strong support inside the Statehouse, but sometimes implementation causes a fuss. The newest push for solar development is getting pushback. Individual communities that have contended with large renewable energy construction projects are speaking out against further growth, Klein said. But, Klein said solar power is an inevitability. “There’s a wave of solar development coming and we need to get ready for it.” Individual communities do not have control over where to locate power generation facilities. Decisions over power generation are up to a statewide oversight organization named the Public Service Board. “If communities have a right to stop renewable energy, that is where I would draw the line. It is totally unacceptable to me,” Klein said.
However, some people say solar projects are not needed at all. Vermont would help the planet the most by preserving what it has. “What we are doing (by adding wind towers and solar power plants) is advancing more serious climate change. What we should be doing is keeping what we have in good shape,” said Steve Wright, former president of Sterling College, former member of the Vermont Environmental Board and former Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. Deliberately destroying the last remaining pristine land to site renewable energy power plants will not rid the state of the need for using other forms of power generation because wind and solar are intermittent and require a back up. “We have created a gold rush economy — especially with solar,” Wright said. “None of these have anything to do with an effective way to stop climate change.” Wright also suggested the people behind the push for a gigantic influx of new development have ulterior motives. “The people who are making money (at installing solar panels) or want to be elected to something are all in on this, they are all in the lifeboat and they are passing the Kool-Aid around. They have gotten controls over the sails and the rudder,” Wright said by phone to The Bridge. “The decision makers have been getting panicked in a way that would get a normal person fired from a normal job.”
Hopefully cool heads and creative minds will prevail so we don’t destroy Mother Nature in order to save the planet.