Know-nothings, kneejerks and NIMBYs: a field guide to the anti-solar brigade

Things is gettin’ a little cray-cray on the anti-renewables front, with signs of truly irrational behavior among those who don’t want solar farms anywhere, anyhow, anytime, anyplace, some of whom appear to harbor delusions that solar energy is our worst ecological nightmare. Others exhibit the more garden-variety strains of obstinate oppositionalism.

We begin down Bennington way, where it’s harvesting season in the nutbar orchard. In Pownal, Fire District No. 2 wants to install a 500-kW solar farm on the land where its pump and wellhead are located. The revenue would cover the cost of the FD’s water system, something local taxpayers have been unwilling to do.

(The array, FYI, would be less than half a square mile. Which, in terms of a sweeping Vermont landscape, simply isn’t that large. Small price to pay for keeping everyone’s fire fees low.)

There were the predictable anti-solar reactions — spoiling the view, affecting property values — but this one takes the cake:

Attendees expressed concern over possible pollution from the array, a risk of fire or explosion, and long-term logistics with the array’s maintenance and decommissioning.

Artist's rendering, proposed Pownal solar array.

Artist’s rendering, proposed Pownal solar array.

Waitwaitwait.

A risk of fire or explosion?

Mmmmmyeah.

There’s plenty of stupid in the rest of the article, but I’ll just stop there. Anyone suggesting spontaneous combustion at a solar array has forfeited all credibility.

And we have more stupid to get to. Starting right next door in Bennington, where the Select Board is trying to block two proposed solar projects. Last week, it voted to bring its concerns to state regulators:

The board is requesting the Public Service Board halt both solar projects because of “the inevitable damage to environmental, historical, safety, visual, and aesthetics of the surroundings.”

Cough.

Emptying the bag, are we? Throwing everything against the wall and hoping something will stick?

Perhaps I shouldn’t expect any better from the town that, earlier this year, rejected fluoridation. Bennington seems not to be too big on science ’n stuff.

Both of these stories illustrate an unfortunate trend in reporting on solar projects. In both cases, the concerns were raised by fewer than 20 people — and yet, they received generous coverage in the local press. If you don’t read the stories closely, you could easily assume a mass uprising had taken place. The same thing happens time after time: a few people get shouty, and the media cover them like they’re a jam-packed Bernie Sanders rally.

Check that: Bernie doesn’t get nearly as much ink.

Speaking of faux uprisings, we turn our attention to Windsor, where a proposal by Green Mountain Power to build a solar farm on the grounds of the Southeast State Correctional Facility has prompted yelps from a handful of residents and panicky overreaction from their local elected officials.

One resident complained of “a huge impact on a beautiful piece of property.”

A state prison. Really, now.

Oh wait, that resident has a vested interest:

“It seems like a huge impact on a beautiful piece of property to power 1,200 homes,” said Sue Marchand-LeBrun, who skis on the land.

Aha. She’d have to find somewhere else to ski. In Vermont.

Such a hassle.

Okay, so tell us of the rampant despoliation this project would bring.

The array would stand eight feet high and would be surrounded by a fence to keep people out but allow small animals to move through the property. A skiing and hiking trail would cut through the middle of the array. The town would receive an estimated $45,000 yearly in property taxes on the array and after 25 years, there are two, five-year options to extend its use. After 35 years, the array would be decommissioned and the property returned to its current state. According to Kirk Shield, GMP’s director of development, the property is not considered prime agricultural soils, correcting a claim by project opponents.

Huh. Sounds like a well-designed project that would have minimal environmental impact while generating enough energy to “power 1,200 homes and help GMP toward its state mandated goal of having 55 percent of its power coming from renewable sources by 2017.” (And we do want Vermont to generate more renewable power, don’t we? Please?)

Ms. Marchand-Lebrun could even continue to ski there, if she can’t find anywhere else to ski. In Vermont.

Just about every time a solar array is proposed, someone raises the “prime agricultural land” canard. As if, somehow, farming is suddenly going to explode* and occupy all the available land.

*Pardon the expression, good people of Pownal.

Look, I’m all in favor of farming. I want more farming and more local food. My local farmers’ market is a must-stop on my weekend schedule. But Vermont has lots and lots of arable land that’s going unused, and you can’t classify every potential solar site as “prime agricultural.” The construction of a reasonable number of solar farms is not going to, in any way, shape, or form, hamstring the growth of Vermont farming.

At least nobody is using that argument in today final case study: a proposed solar array in Strafford, “on the site of the former Elizabeth Mine.” For those just joining us, that was an old copper mine turned environmental nightmare, one of the worst Superfund sites in Vermont.

The Environmental Protection Agency spent more than $50 million cleaning up the defunct copper mine after finding contaminants from mining from the early 1800s to 1950s were reaching the area’s waterways.

Because of the Superfund designation, “most other uses are banned.” And it’s an ideal site for solar, according to Dori Wolfe of Wolfe Energy, which is proposing the project: “It is a beautiful solar site, 28 acres of flat level already cleared.”

There have been some rumblings of discontent, but it’s too soon to say whether serious oppposition will arise in Strafford. I will say this: if the old Elizabeth Mine is to be considered untouchable for solar development, then what’s left? Anyone who trots out the “environmental degradation” or “property value” or “preservation” arguments for a goddamn Superfund site will have also forfeited their credibility.

I don’t mind reasonable restrictions on solar development, really I don’t. But when every solar proposal elicits screams of protest, then I can’t take the opponents seriously. They are not credible participants in a logical discussion about the future of renewable energy in Vermont. They are, purely and simply, obstructionists.

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27 thoughts on “Know-nothings, kneejerks and NIMBYs: a field guide to the anti-solar brigade

  1. Martin Poppe

    “prime agricultural land” Like Maple Tree Place, etc. at Tafts corner? Where the deer now have to go to the pet food store for grub.

    Reply
  2. Rita Pitkin

    I’m beginning to think that the only place in Vermont where renewable energy is given a thumbs up is in the Northeast Kingdom!

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Well, the Kingdom doesn’t like wind power. And I don’t think anyone’s tried to site major solar farms there, so we’ll see.

      They certainly don’t mind Jay Peak mega-sprawl.

      Reply
      1. Rita Pitkin

        I live in the Kingdom and am appalled by the Jay Peak expansion. From what I can tell, most jobs sure don’t pay a livable wage.

  3. NanuqFC

    There are legitimate questions about solar installations, John, you just cover the less rational ones because you are solidly pro-solar.

    Fr’instance, solar seems to have been given a pass on environmental impacts of its manufacture. We want fossil fuel industry divestment because its production (and use) is terrible for the environment, no question. Yet I haven’t seen media showing how solar panels are made and what kind of impact that process might have.

    You’ve tossed off as irrational any concerns about decommissioning these array sites after a relatively short lifespan of 35 years. How will the panels be safely disposed of without negative environmental impact? These are legitimate questions I have not seen asked or answered.

    I am not anti-solar, but I do hate hypocrisy. If it’s legitimate to ask questions about nuclear and fossil fuels and decommissioning nuclear, coal, or gas-driven power plants, then it’s legitimate to ask those questions about solar power too.

    The one thing solar has going for it is that “when there’s a fuel spill, it’s just called a nice sunny day” (except in California these days, when it’s called a contribution to their drought).

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Sure there are legitimate questions. But when the antis take the “throw everything against the wall” approach, it’s hard to take them seriously. They’re the boy who cries wolf ALL. THE. TIME.

      Reply
  4. Dave Katz

    Perhaps somebody’s passing around yet another dogeared copy of “The Protocols of The Elders Of Zion” with a new forward by John McLaughry, linking renewable energy to the worldwide Jewish conspiracy. The prating in harmony at these public hearings smacks of the heard-it-through-my fillings-chorus of (pick one) of these pop hits: flouridation; black neighbors kill property values; anchor babies.
    As usual, the press is flat-footed. Any interviews with these anti-solar opponents, maybe discovering a common linkage or two?

    Reply
  5. Colleen Halley

    Thank you John for, as always, a rational response to the irrational, emotional opposition which says no to nearly everything, yes to nothing, fights only against things the don’t want and never for the things they purportedly support (“I support solar, but…” ” I support wind, but…” There’s always a but….). Climate change will do more damage to all of those aesthetics, natural habitats and property values they care so much about than a few solar or wind farms will ever do. But hey, if there’s no silver bullet that will solve climate change in one fell swoop, why do anything, right?

    Reply
  6. Bob Farnham

    I’m with Colleen on her point about, “I support solar, but…” Where are the answers to solving Vermont’s energy needs?

    The conservative thing for Vermont to do, or any state for that matter, is become energy independent. The sooner the better.

    “When things go bad…” Vermont is their insurance policy.

    What’s really going to change our landscape is the influx of people from the drought-stricken states, moving here for water. I recently had a couple from Arizona look at a camp on 2 acres I own in Thetford Center. They have a friend and neighbor in Arizona whose well has run dry. They’ve drilled to 2,000 and still found nothing. “Vermont is kind of our escape pod when things go bad in Arizona. Buying now, before it happens makes it cheap insurance.”

    Reply
  7. John Mayo

    Hey John S. Walters
    Somebody is spewing 1st grade logic against the questioning of solar farm locations and signing your name to it. Thought you should know.

    Reply
  8. cassie

    I have done a lot of research on this topic and what I’m hearing is not “NIMBY”, but wanting other alternatives so that they can preserve and better suit Vermonters and their beautiful state. When did wanting a choice turn into not wanting solar?? Why Not choose other options when they’re are other available options? Places that ARE better for the all. As I see it, it’s about the PSB process, how our state agencies are selling out our state and the public interests and giving it to people to make a lot of money at our expense.
    There appears to be a lot of viable places for solar to go other than in the most beautiful landscapes, and wildlife refuge in the state. Why are they not being utilized? These NIMBY’S” are in NO way against solar…they are against having no choice and having this shoved down their throats. The community would love to work together with solar companies, power companies and VT legislature to come up with solar farm locations that suit everyone. There are other alternatives if they’re were not then maybe they ‘NIMBY”S’ would take another approach….and opt for it in their back yards….for the good of the all.

    Reply
  9. Michael T. Quinn

    I really enjoyed reading the diversity of opinion in the, “article.” If I had received it from a student as a writing assignment I would have returned it with constructive criticism for flawed assumptions, lack of research, factual inaccuracies, unnecessary name-calling that revealed writer insecurity and attempts to disguise vapid and vacuous argument with flourishes of playground fight vernacular that reflect poorly on the author’s anger issues and may be merely a cry for attention at a time of loneliness. I’d suggest that a re-write is in order toward a truer and clearer understanding and argument about the situation around the proposed solar sprawl in Windsor. I would recommend that the author travel to Windsor to view the beauty or ugliness of the state prison property to confirm the allegations presented, and study the Vermont tradition of local control of land use issues. After the walk around the prison property we may consider state government ethics questions in which elected officials support a campaign manager’s development aspirations devoid of local input until the lease has been signed. After that, I’d begin my own work on reducing run-on sentences.

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Thanks for the criticism and psychoanalysis. My blog is my own. It represents my views and insights for whatever they’re worth. Your recommendations will be given the same consideration you gave to my views. Cold day in hell, to put it another way.

      Reply
    2. Ed Dooely

      “I would recommend that the author travel to Windsor to view the beauty or ugliness of the state prison property to confirm the allegations presented, and study the Vermont tradition of local control of land use issues”

      I would suggest that if you studied the Vermont tradition of local control you’d be hard pressed to find the last time a local government had any control over utility siting or rights of way, or state roads or interstates.

      Reply
  10. Annette Smith

    Stunning display of ignorance and snark all wrapped up. Okay, so let’s try some facts. Pinwale first:

    Pownal: 5 member water board issues RFP for solar project to make up for projected budget shortfalls. Green Lantern is the only respondent. Proposes 500 kW solar array carpeting the entire field that serves as the wellhead protection area for the area water supply, including right up to the roadside and right up to a private resident. Area residents point out that the road next to the field is a high traffic area, with tractor trailers and other vehicles speeding through on their way to and from NY, with a lot of accidents just in the last year. Concern about accidents and what might happen if a truck goes off the road into a solar array proposed to be right next to the road. The residents learn that the panels contain cadmium and other heavy metals and yes, they do degrade over time. Precautionary principle indicates it would be prudent not to risk even a minor threat to the resident’s drinking water supply. Might be fine. Might not. Wanna take the chance with your water?

    Meanwhile, residents who have not paid much attention to their water board start learning that the by-laws for Pownal Fire District #2 call for only 3 board members. And that the 5 board members voted themselves free water, and then a stipend. They also voted themselves into office at the last annual meeting instead of having the 7 ratepayers vote on the board members which is what the by-laws call for. And, the annual meeting was held at a time not according to what the by-laws call for. One of the board members doesn’t live in the district which is another violation of the by-laws and he stepped down in July. Another board member works for the water system.

    An area resident who is an accountant then looks at the budget and finds that the bond could be refinanced, and if the water board stopped receiving free water, it would dramatically reduce the alleged budget shortfall. The water board ignored the suggestion to refinance, which was brought to them in time to have done it. Numerous suggestions have been made to address the budgetary issues, all of which have been dismissed by the water board.

    Realizing the residents have a point about maximizing every square inch of land, the board and Green Lantern come up with a reduced plan for a 350 kW array, and in particular eliminate the portion right next to a home. Then the legislature passed setback that eliminated the close proximity to the traveled roadway. This scaled the project back to 150 kW which would not generate enough money to do much for the budget shortfall. And the plan all along involved selling the RECs, so it wouldn’t be renewable energy for Vermonters.

    Residents have brought forward ideas to work with Green Lantern and the water district to try and find a location for a real community solar array, one that is renewable energy for the local residents. But the water board was fixated on their plan. So the residents petitioned for a vote.

    The vote was not about solar. It was about governance. The residents and the water board chair have all spent a lot of time on the phone with the Secretary of State’s office. The first vote was warned wrong and had to be rescheduled. Several people plan to run for the water board and bring fiscal responsibility and accountability to the board, whose members have received $20,000 in benefits over the last few years thanks to their stipend and free water, and the public’s lack of attention to how the system was being run.

    Care to revisit your snark?

    Reply
  11. Annette Smith

    Next, Windsor Prison Farm Solar site.

    So you’re a resident of Windsor, and you are part of the community that has for years enjoyed and appreciated public access to the incredible 900 acre farm property which hosts numerous bird species and has been used by local for hunting and recreation. Sometime early in 2014, your legislative representative, town manager, ANR staff, area residents form a group that is agreeing to work on the future of the prison property. Throughout 2014 and into 2015, residents believe they are part of the conversation. In the 2015 legislative session, there is discussion about closing the prison, so the local group is especially interested in being a part of the community and state discussion. There is a long email string documenting this community group effort.

    Then along comes the 45 day notice from GMP in July, 2015 for a 5 MW solar array on 50 acres of the prison site, in the midst of the bird habitat and in direct view from the public road that has an extraordinary scenic view that includes that field, and a plan to also cut 11 acres of forest. Nobody in the group was ever informed about the solar plan, and are shocked. They do not think that their friends at ANR would be a part of the conversation about how to divide up the property, without telling them that these conversations were taking place.

    The group members go to a meeting with groSolar and GMP and are amazed to hear the discussion about all the meetings that have been held with ANR staff and groSolar’s experts deciding how much of the bobolink habitat to eliminate. Should it be 30% of the habitat or 50%? Yep, that’s in the public records. The area residents who were especially friendly with the ANR staff feel kicked in the gut, betrayed by people they have known for years. They cannot believe they would ever do this to them, yet the future of the prison site was all decided behind closed doors in numerous meetings going back to at least January 2015, with zero community input and not even a word to anyone in the community about what was being planned.

    So yes, there are serious issues with the specific site. But as with the Pownal project, this is not about solar. This is about our democracy. A functioning democracy does not engage state agencies and corporate interests entering into deals behind closed doors, betraying the community impacted by their plans. GMP and BGS signed the least July 1. The 45 day notice went out July 2. On July 30, ANR biologist Forrest Hammond, one of the people who the area residents were sure would tell them about any plans for the prison site, wrote:

    From: Hammond, Forrest
    Sent: Thursday, July 30, 2015 9:49 AM
    To: Porter, Louis; Royar, Kim; Cox, Ken; Bernier, Chris
    Subject: RE: Updated Windsor Site Plan
    I reviewed the map and then phoned Rod to clarify a couple issues. I also reached Ken who is home on sick leave recuperating from knee surgery. I believe the map represents our discussion to date. Ken thinks he will get time later in the day to give it some scrutiny as well.
    I do have a question on what our message should be to the public regarding this project. Although we have been deeply involved in the siting and design of this project we have had no input as to its overall size and the fact it was ever proposed to be located on Prison Farm lands. Is our message to the public that – “yes we have been involved with the review and siting so
    that it would be located on the property in a manner to have the least impact on the wildlife resources as possible, but that doesn’t mean we are advocates for the project?” From my standpoint I would much preferred that the project be much smaller in size and not have impacted so large an area of grassland bird habitat.
    Frost

    Doesn’t sound like the staff scientists were on board with the plan. No matter. Gotta build solar no matter what, at least that’s what you seem to think. Damn the democracy, gotta get all the investment bankers their profits!

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      When did I ever say “gotta build solar no matter what”? I actually wrote the exact opposite: there are places unsuitable for solar, and we need a reasonable and inclusive process. That doesn’t mean giving Annette Smith or anyone else a veto over any proposal.

      Reply
  12. Annette Smith

    Next up, Bennington.

    A company calling itself Ecos Energy tells locals they are 5 guys from Minnesota. Their legal filings from a company called Allco, which has two addresses, one on Wall St., the other on Water St. in NYC. A father/son team of lawyers, Thomas and Michael Melone, whose company is a founder of SunEdison and one of the owners of groSolar. Renewable industrialist Thomas Melone was a wind developer in the midwest, and also tried some offshore wind, but he sued to stop Cape Wind over concerns about diminution of his property values for his $15 million home on Martha’s Vineyard, and he also worried that the wind turbines would leak oil and contaminate his beach.

    Litigious folks, Melone has sued the California PUC, the state of CT, FERC, Gamesa the wind turbine developer, and he came up with some scheme that Sen. Schumer called a fraud. Google them, there is plenty out there and some of it is quite entertaining.

    Their rep in Vermont, Brad Wilson, first comes to Sudbury where he tells the people they are just 5 guys from Minnesota, and when they ask why here in this beautiful open field with bobolink habitat and a site that cannot screen the solar array from neighbors whose homes look right out at the field, he says they are there because it is an open site and if it involved cutting 15 acres of forest they wouldn’t be there, it wouldn’t be allowed.

    That was said a month or two after Allco/Ecos successfully appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court to allow their two contiguous 2 MW solar projects. You can read the history of the legal issues and the joy this company brings to the local community in the Briefs and Reply Briefs. BRIEFS
    PSD: http://vce.org/8302%20-%202015.08.07%20PSD%20Resp%20re%20Post%20Hearing%20Brief.pdf
    Harris: http://vce.org/8302_Harris_Brief_080715.pdf
    Developer: http://vce.org/post%20hearing%20brief%20%28FINAL%29%20with%20cert.pdf (skip to the end for the most colorful part)

    REPLY BRIEFS
    Developer: http://vce.org/Petitioner%27s%20Reply%20Brief%20%28FINAL%20with%20Cert%20of%20Service%29.pdf
    Harris: http://vce.org/8302_Harris_ReplyBrief_081315.pdf

    So they’re planning to cut a 30 acre forest that is buffering traffic noise and wind for the residences above, and have done no noise monitoring, produced only a model that minimizes the potential impacts compared to Federal Highway estimates, refused to do a wind study, and despite telling the VSC they were going to use two separate roads and electricity infrastructure which is the legal requirement, they’re building both sites using the same road and connecting via the same mile long power line extension. Their visual assessment is almost entirely in black and white, there is only one simulation showing the final site from one angle, seems they have attempted to minimize what may be a very large visual impact but nobody can really tell based on the poor quality work presented in the case. If it’s built and it is visible, it will likely result in uproar and set renewable energy back.

    So keep it up folks, keep letting the developers run the show, choose sites guaranteed to attract negative attention, run roughshod over the people who live in the community, sell the RECs out of state so some coal plant can keep polluting, and claim you’re saving the planet while opposing a much larger renewable energy project. Just brilliant. Great way to move us forward with our energy future. No doubt some of you folks who think this is all wonderful will get a chance soon to feel the joy of the developers + PSB + state agency marriage that will be coming to more neighborhoods in Vermont, but with even bigger projects.

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      The point of my post was that people like Annette Smith rise up to oppose every single solar or wind proposal. She’s proving my point. The fundamental question remains, if not there, then where? Where can we site renewable energy projects? If you don’t have a good answer — and “somewhere else” doesn’t qualify — then I can’t take you seriously.

      Reply
      1. Faith Biggs King

        Spot on. Your column may be “snarky” (so what if it is) but at least it doesn’t read like the minutes of a committee hearing. It’s not about “solar” it’s about “democracy”? Oh really…..let’s argue and nit-pick every project into the ground…and then, oh, quelle surprise…..times passes and the lame-ass goal post we have set for ourselves is just as far away as it was at the start. But that’s ok…Annette Smith and purity trolls like her (who think the water board process in Pownal is ultimately a bigger issue then climate catastrophe…that’s what we’re talking about) won’t be around for ever and will have effectively helped to drag or communal feet so that NOTHING CHANGES. The true end goal. Enriching investment bankers? Oh please. If you care so much about that, why aren’t you folks picketing Congress for more stringent banking and investment regulations, as well as jailing the crew who wrecked the economy? You’re gonna’ make your “stand” against bankers by opposing a solar farm on prison land. Terrific.

  13. cassie

    John, If they can’t put their solar farms in these places are you saying they have no other place to do it and will shut the whole process down? Are you saying there are NO other alternative locations that better suit everyone?

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      No. What I am saying is wherever a solar project is proposed, some people rise up to oppose it. I have yet to hear an opponent of solar come out with a reasonable way of identifying “better” sites and building a decent amount of solar capacity in Vermont.

      Reply
  14. newzjunqie

    During the wind development wars you stated that solar is more suitable for VT. Then when the solar projects were proposed, letters in carefully chosen local papers opposing it appeared. VCE website comes out strong against wind but links for other renewables such as support for solar didn’t work at least for me.
    http://vce.org/

    Own worst enemy as well as that of your causes with the master-manipulation tactics, criticism of environmentalists by employing qualifiers such as their support for wind in an attempt to invalidate any bonafides. Ridiculing them for trying to “save the planet”, which belies your true mission btw, and consistantly down-in-the-mouth attitude toward renewables doesn’t give the appearance of being in the same camp or even on the same page at all. And the histrionics are offputting.

    Nor was I a fan of the antics of the local antinuke bunch for the carnival atmosphere of mimes and the like, hurling manure at officials in public meetings as it is mere showboating at its worst and also hurts the cause by detracting from the very serious issues at hand. Message can be lost if messengers mishandle the message and become a distraction, not a fan of “clubs” either.

    I also have concerns and ideas but could never add my voice to the chorus of naysayers who display consistantly contrarian behavior and appear to support an obstructionist agenda. For the record I tend to agree with NanuqFC sentiments. Would like to see the more professional and rational environmentalist groups such as VPIRG and CLF get involved at some level while avoiding the drama. Doesn’t make sense to cause negative environmental impacts to stop negative environmental impacts. When frustrated residents who have serious issues and genuine concerns are exploited to seemingly further this type of agenda it actually serves to coopt their interests rather than support them.

    Communities may need to become proactive and perhaps seek to incentivize, support, invite & host those who take their reasonable concerns seriously and foster a less adversarial relationship. Changing the dynamics of the relationship if even possible may be worthwhile. Strident message of knucklerapping for not smalling-up footprint to your liking another form of selfrighteousness and rather foolish to villify the very folks one is trying to win. While I agree that less is more and a minimalist myself I don’t try to push my beliefs on others as it is an effort in futility.

    Focusing on what works and what is available rather than crusading against manufacturing and technology would seem to be more productive as clearly that didn’t work out well for the Luddites.

    Reply

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