By Ed Amidon | Popple Dungeon Road, Charlotte
I read with interest Rep. Mike Yantachka’s Legislative Report on the topic of renewable siting (The Charlotte News, Jan. 28, 2016). As he concludes, finding the balance between the benefit of large-scale wind and solar developments and the adverse impact on communities is a matter of finding a “reasonable compromise.”
A “reasonable compromise” would seemingly involve a balancing of benefits and injuries to communities, individuals, the state and the world. However, the problem is that what is “reasonable” depends upon what you believe with respect to the existence of benefits and injuries from large-scale development.
Most (not all) people would agree that there is a worldwide climate change problem due at least in part to greenhouse gas emissions and that Vermont should make an appropriate contribution to reducing the emissions. This is where the agreement ends. Building large industrial wind and solar developments in Vermont will not affect the oil spills, tar sands mining and mountain top destruction mentioned by Mike. These environmental disasters have almost nothing to do with Vermont. This state uses virtually no coal-generated electricity and oil is used only to meet occasional very high summer demand. Our electricity comes from hydro and relatively low-emission gas and, recently, a small amount of wind and solar when the wind blows and/or the sun shines.
We have for many years been the greenest state in the country, using generation that produces no or very low carbon emissions.
So, too, there is profound disagreement as to whether industrial wind and solar provide a net economic benefit to Vermont. If you total up state and federal grant money and tax expenditures (credits), transfer of electric grid capacity costs from solar to non-solar users and inflated power purchase contracts given to developers that increase consumer rates, a strong argument can be made that industrial wind and solar are expensive luxuries in a poor state. Our electric rates may be relatively low in New England but not thanks to wind and solar. State funds have been used that could have more wisely been used to reduce the state education tax or fund badly needed drug addiction treatment and other social needs.
On the other side of the scale, the injury to Vermont’s iconic landscape by the current “build everywhere” policy is plain, including our own industrial solar development on Hinesburg Road abutting residential housing and conservation land (although happily the Ferry Road development is sited in a commercial/industrial zone). People move to Vermont and tourists come here to experience a relatively unspoiled and non-industrial landscape. People buy houses feeling protected by local zoning and planning only to find that state law allows wind and solar developers to override the protections.
How do the benefits and injuries from large-scale development add up in trying to craft a “reasonable compromise”? On the benefit side, we are accepting some responsibility for the costs of pushing back on climate change. But the other supposed benefits are not there. Vermont’s power sources are not a significant source of carbon pollution (although the same cannot be said for our home heating and vehicle use). And the claimed economic advantage of renewables in Vermont disappears on close examination. On the other hand, the injury to our landscape under the present law is enormous.
We are cutting off pieces of our mountains and ridges and erecting 500-foot-high turbines and trying to cover the state with large clumps of solar collectors. Weighing the benefits and injuries, a moderate and reasonably sized response to climate change would be more appropriate to our small population, tourist economy, prized landscape and, simply stated, our quality of life.
So, to some of us, a “reasonable compromise” would be to allow local planning and zoning and Act 250 to operate with respect to wind and solar development. What’s the rush? Congress has now renewed developer tax credits so the deadline for building has been extended. Development might be slowed by treating wind and solar like other industrial uses, but it will occur in a deliberate and not a “gold rush” fashion. And we can live without a medal for being the state to build the most per capita industrial wind and solar developments in the shortest time.