Vermont’s New Working Landscape

Vermonters have a long, sometimes storied, sometimes notorious, history of working on our land. In the latter category we have, among others, the sheep boom of the early 19th Century that left vast forests converted to pasture; the near-clearcutting of the entire state during the lumber (and wood construction) boom of the later 19th; the complete trashing of our waters by riverbank industries; and our modern-day violations of the Clean Water Act, caused in large part by agriculture and inadequate public water treatment.

Throughout it all, Vermont has been a working landscape with a tenuous, inconsistent relationship to the environment. Fortunately, we never found exploitable resources like coal or precious metals or oil. Also fortunately, the population has remained small enough that we’ve never been able to damage the environment beyond its incredible ability to regenerate.

But whether we were engaged in massive sheep farming, clearcut lumbering, industry, dairy farming, or shopping malls and subdivisions, the one constant is that we live in a “working landscape.” We have often celebrated that fact. And indeed, long-familiar aspects of the working landscape — even if they cause environmental degradation — are cherished parts of our way of life.

Myself, I’m looking forward to the next evolution of Vermont’s working landscape: the integration of renewable energy, the creation of a closer-to-home energy supply, the diminished dependence on fossil fuels and on massive “renewable” sources elsewhere, such as Seabrook Nuclear and the destructive hydro projects in northern Quebec.

I just don’t see solar arrays or wind turbines as inherently incompatible with the Vermont landscape. When I see them, I see a growing commitment to making our own energy in the most earth-friendly ways possible.

I’m not talking about covering the state with solar panels or installing turbines on every mountaintop. The vast majority of our land is unsuitable for solar or wind development. And even if it was, we would only need to use a fraction of the available land to produce significant amounts of energy.

And there is plenty of land to go around, for preservation, conservation, and economic uses. When opponents bemoan the loss of farmland to solar arrays, I can cite figures that show less than half of Vermont’s “land in farms” is actively being cultivated. More of it is growing wood than food. There is plenty of farmland available to accommodate the agricultural sector’s most optimistic growth projections. And only a relative handful of our ridgelines are commercially viable sites for wind turbines. The vast majority of our mountains would remain untouched, even under the most ambitious projections of wind energy growth.

This means we can site intelligently and still create a responsible renewable system. We can avoid using the most sensitive or scenic lands. What we can’t do, and what renewable opponents routinely do, is say “NO” every time a project is proposed.

But that’s not my main point here. My point is that there’s nothing about turbines or solar arrays that is any more incompatible with Vermont’s environment than, say, a dairy farm (that spews manure into Lake Champlain), a woodlot (that gets clearcut and requires rough-hewn access roads through uncut forest and allows sediment to slough into rivers and streams) or the smoke rising from a woodstove chimney (that contributes to Vermont’s worst-in-the-nation rate of adult-onset asthma).

The only difference between a solar farm and a dairy barn is that the latter is familiar and the former is not. Vermonters don’t like unfamiliar stuff. But let it stay around long enough, it becomes familiar, accepted, and even loved.

If we follow through on our commitments to home-state renewables, we will live in a Vermont with vast quantities of natural beauty AND the occasional solar or turbine array. And we will come to accept renewable installations as part of our working landscape. Most of us will go beyond acceptance; we will see renewables as integral parts of the working landscape and tangible demonstrations of our environmental commitment. We will see a solar array or a turbine farm, and we will smile.

Not because we’ve been bought off by corporate money or brainwashed by climate change propaganda, but because Vermont’s working landscape will have taken another step — and a very positive one at that — in the course of its existence.

24 thoughts on “Vermont’s New Working Landscape

  1. Mark Whitworth

    If you want to understand the difference between a wind turbine and a barn, you should rent the Therrien home for a vacation. You can sleep (or try to sleep) beneath the Sheffield turbines. During the day, you can tour the area’s many barns,

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      And your plan is what, exactly? Last I saw, Energize Vermont had put forward an alternative path to renewable energy. It involves heavy reliance on Seabrook Nuclear and Hydro Quebec. That’s simply not good enough.

      1. Mark Whitworth

        Well, John, It seems that you looked at the Energize Vermont website, but it’s clear that you didn’t understand what you read. Try again.

        Now, about that vacation in Sheffield…

      2. John S. Walters Post author

        I was referring to Energize Vermont’s own alternative energy plan, released a few years ago under your predecessor Luke Snelling. It outlined a path to meeting our renewable goals that depended almost entirely on Hydro Quebec and Seabrook nuclear.

        If EV has subsequently amended that plan, I’d love to see it. I just spent about ten minutes browing the website and I couldn’t find a plan. I found a lot of broad, unspecific rhetoric.

  2. Greg Morgan

    The term I’ve come to like is “use with stewardship”. Said an other way: it’s ok to use our environment and natural resources, but wisely.

  3. waltermoses

    Wow, have you ever taken the tour of Lowell big wind? I have, and was appalled. However, your justification for destruction of the Vermont landscape by recalling the abuses of the past is alarming. You have only been a “Vermonter” for nine years? You really are an ass.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Sorry, I don’t see a reasonable quantity of renewables as constituting “destruction of the Vermont landscape.” If we are to transition to a renewable future, we have to make use of renewable sources. Vermont has some to offer, and can make the offer without turning our state into anything like the Hellscape that you depict.

      And I think “ass” is part of the blogger’s job description. Thanks for validating my standing in this field.

  4. waltermoses

    If you don’t erase the above you will no doubt want to know what my “plan” is. Before revealing my “plan” I will say it will not be destructive of the landscape, cause that’s “the way it has always been”. You are a horse’s ass.

  5. Sen. Joe Benning

    Falling into what no doubt you’d describe as an “opponent” on this subject, permit me to respectfully engage in the discussion. I’ll repeat my earlier contentions that I am as much an environmentalist as anyone else in this state with a personal track record to prove it. But it has suddenly dawned on me that our historical and geographical differences are playing a large part in our differences of opinion in how this state is approaching renewable energy.

    First, let me observe our historical differences. A couple weeks ago you posted an interesting essay expressing some anger at those who don’t think you have the right to an opinion on subjects because you and your lineage have not lived here long enough. I chuckled when I read it, because it brought back memories. Neither of us is native to this state. But when it comes to how Vermonters have treated their environment, I have a couple of decades worth of experience that you do not. That does not mean I am somehow superior to you. It just means historically I was witness to something you were not. Pertinent to this discussion was a horrible realization that midwest coal plants were polluting our atmosphere in such a way as to defoliate our mountaintop ridgelines with acid rain. We Vermont environmentalists learned about how important those ecosystems were to our water quality and wildlife habitat. We spent years working to get federal legislation passed to protect them.

    So when a construction company comes along, dynamites their way across seven miles of ridgeline (as in Lowell) and leaves a trail of concrete pyramids in its wake, you might at least understand that those of us who fought to protect those same ecosystems have got our dander up. That’s why we ask tough questions like what, exactly, will our destroying this do to achieve the ultimate goal of reducing CO2 in our atmosphere. We tend to get frustrated (like you did in your previous essay) when we get pigeon-holed into the “denier” category. We tend to get exasperated when we learn there will be no measurable impact on improving our environment; this is somehow just supposed to convince the rest of the world how to change itself. We get downright angry when the companies running these operations have the gall to then turn around and sell Renewable Energy Credits out of state so really big polluters can keep right on polluting. From an historical perspective, I would hope you would at least understand why “opponents” like me feel the way we do, even if we continue to disagree. But by simply labeling us “deniers” to cast aside our concerns, you come across sounding like you are (in the words of my Vermont mentor) “from away.”

    Now for the geographical perspective. I understand you live in Montpelier. Here’s a bet. You will never see a four hundred foot wide, one hundred foot tall concrete pyramid bedecked with an almost five hundred foot tall whirling propeller atop Hubbard Hill. That’s not because it isn’t “commercially viable,” it’s because it isn’t politically viable. The same can be said for every hill and valley between you and the shores of Lake Champlain, that big windy lake that has been blowing boats around for two centuries or so.

    Which brings me to that prickly label “NIMBY,” which seems to crop up too often. It is far too easy to fling that label when it is not your backyard in the target sites of developers who are presently making a killing at Vermont’s expense. We here in the Northeast Kingdom are probably now producing more renewable energy then we ourselves can use. Within a 60 mile radius we have the Coventry methane plant, the Lowell and Sheffield wind facilities, the Glover solar array, Moore and Comerford hydro dams and the Ryegate bio plant. That does not include the countless individual efforts being done through various means.

    And then along comes Ranger Solar, a Maine company that wants to level 300 acres of woodland for a solar array that would be the biggest in Vermont. And where do they want to do that? Well, here in the Kingdom of course, on a hillside overlooking the Orleans County Fairgrounds and less than a half mile from the current Glover solar array. We in the Kingdom can’t use the power. Will you then yell “NIMBY” if we suggest we don’t need it?

    I’ll close with this. Those of us already inclined to ask tough questions would like to know what, exactly, does it mean to reach our 2037 renewable energy goals with only in-state production? Mr. Blittersdorf says it will require 6,000MW of industrial solar and an additional 3,000MW of industrial wind. He acknowledges wind will require 200 miles of ridgelines. Nobody has yet calculated how many acres of properly facing land is required to accommodate 6,000MW of solar. You said above that “[w]e can avoid using the most sensitive or scenic lands” to achieve our renewable energy goals. If we are not going to place these massive generating facilities and accompanying transmission lines where the actual demand is, then surely your historical and geographical knowledge of Vermont knows your siting options are getting quite limited. Step off the idealist soapbox for a moment and be honest about what parts of Vermont are disposable because they do not meet your definition of “sensitive or scenic.” We in the Kingdom may then decide whether you have earned the moniker of “Vermonter” or remain saddled with the opprobrium “from away.”

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Thanks for an intelligent, reasoned presentation of your argument. And thanks for calling me an idealist; might be the nicest thing anyone’s said to me all week.

      I will point out one problem: I have seen the maps showing locations where wind is commercially viable, and they indicate a relatively small number of our ridgelines. Lake Champlain may be windy, but it’s not windy enough to power commercial turbines. Neither is Hubbard Hill. These issues have been thoroughly studied.

      I’ve heard the 200-mile figure before, most recently in an anti-renewables piece by Rob Roper. That figure by itself is meaningless unless we can compare it to the total amount of ridgeline in Vermont. Is it 500 miles? 2000? 5000? There’s a lot of ridgeline in our state.

      As for “no measurable impact on improving our environment,” that’s a hell of an assertion with no evidence to back it up. I think you’re referring to the REC arguments made, incessantly, by people in your camp. To me, those arguments are a canard: if we’re making more energy through renewable means, we are lowering demand for non-renewable energy. It doesn’t matter who gets the credit; the energy is real and it makes a difference.

      1. Sen. Joe Benning

        Re: “Lake Champlain may be windy, but it’s not windy enough to power commercial turbines.” You know, there’s a single wind turbine on the plain just south of I-89’s exit 13 that seems to be spinning just fine, right near one that broke down several years ago that hasn’t been removed. It’s spinning propeller makes mockery of the contention that that area is not windy enough to power commercial turbines. I too have seen that famous wind study. Despite what it says, every wind facility (even here in the Kingdom) still begins with a met tower, allegedly to gauge whether a given area is viable. If that study is accurate, met towers are a canard.

        Re: “the 200-mile figure” for industrial wind. This was a figure David Blittersdorf quoted in a presentation to Addison County Democrats recently. You can find his entire power point presentation with an easy google search. It’s about an hour long, but well worth watching. If you are ruling out “sensitive and scenic” areas, proponents should have the courage to state specifically those areas that are not so considered in their eyes. An intelligent debate about this should recognize the current willy-nilley, piece-meal PSB granting of applications (currently determined by developers) is based primarily on whether it contributes to our overall energy goals. A smarter approach would be to first identify and then protect “sensitive and scenic” areas. But if your plan is to say we can simply put 200 miles of turbines in the Northeast Kingdom, be prepared for a secession movement.

        Re: “no measurable impact on improving our environment.” My observation is predicated upon accepting that whatever Vermont does will have no impact on planet earth’s current problem. We’re only talking about 3,000MW of renewable wind power, a figure virtually unrecognizable in anything needed to combat climate change. I stand by that premise. My point is that we shouldn’t destroy what we have previously fought hard to protect without a demonstration that our doing so is worth it. And believing that destruction of these critical ecosystems to get that little bit of power is worth it to “lead the world” in combating climate change is a fool’s errand. This is especially true if that renewable power can already be obtained across state lines.

        I’ll close by noting you haven’t responded at all to the Ranger Solar question. The entire state features potential topography for siting solar arrays. Should the PSB grant an application to level three hundred acres of forest land here in the Kingdom, where we now likely already produce more renewable energy than we can use, just because it would contribute to the state’s goal? There are two concerns here. First, I would argue this demonstrates why parameters need to be set for PSB siting to protect “sensitive and scenic” areas from a state-wide perspective. Secondly, I believe this demonstrates why it is important not to casually dismiss the idea that out of state renewable sources should be used in reaching our goals. We share a feeling of disappointment that native populations were displaced and lands were transformed for Hydro-Quebec, but neither of us can turn back that clock. The power now being produced there is available and inexpensive. Destroying our own ecosystems to make a point on principle equates to believing two wrongs make a right.

        Thanks for the discussion.

      2. John S. Walters Post author

        Are you saying that any state or nation should abandon the effort if they aren’t large enough to have a measurable impact on the global environment? By that standard, nobody should lift a finger. Otherwise, I guess you’re arguing that Vermont deserves a pass that nobody else gets.

  6. Sen. Joe Benning

    “Vermont deserves a pass?!?!?!” Not by a long shot!!! You’ll notice I never said we should NOT strive to meet our renewable energy goals. I think that is a noble objective, but argue it should be done in a Vermont way. However, if we are going to permit industrial developers to trash critical ecosystems or (in your words) “sensitive and scenic” parts of Vermont and then turn around and sell their power or RECs out of state, then people who would normally be on the same side environmentally will become polarized. It will fuel an argument to lower those goals, which would be too bad.

    I’m disappointed you haven’t even considered identifying those areas of the state that don’t meet your “sensitive and scenic” definition. But I suppose doing so might alienate a portion of your readership.

    And you are still ducking the question: Should an out of state solar developer be able to level three hundred acres of forestland here in the Kingdom when the Kingdom already produces more renewable energy than it can use?

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Sen. Benning:

      My essay was an attempt to give a broad outline of the issue. I made no pretense of discussing specific projects or proposals. I can’t make a specific statewide list of suitable sites or critical lands. (That’s kind of a lot to expect from an unpaid blogger.)

      Ultimately, you have your position and I have mine. You are an able advocate for yours. I do my best to achieve the same.

      I will address one point in your last message. I don’t agree that the Kingdom should be exempt from further renewable development simply because it “already produces more renewable energy than it can use.” Would you be willing to adopt the same standard for the northern Quebec lands flooded or despoiled by Hydro Quebec? For that matter, what say you to residents of New Hampshire’s North Country, who are likely to see high-tension power lines blasted through their “sensitive and scenic” lands to carry HQ energy to Northeastern markets? Is the North Country inherently more violable than the Northeast Kingdom?

      The people of northern Quebec have been forced to sacrifice many things for the benefit of others. The sacrifices asked of the Kingdom would be trivial by comparison.

      1. Sen. Joe Benning

        I believe the citizens of New Hampshire’s North Country (my neighbors, by the way) have the right to make decisions about their own land without those decisions being made by down country or out of state developers saying otherwise. And I certainly wouldn’t stick my Vermont nose in their business.

        And we agree that the Cree nation in northern Quebec sacrificed quite a bit for Canada to come up with Hydro Quebec. But that clock won’t be turned back because we feel bad for them. The power exists and is available to meet our renewable goals, IF WE NEED IT. So is industrial wind power from the midwest, IF WE NEED IT. You seem to be having trouble accepting the possibility that the Kingdom does not need any more power.

        And if additional power is necessary to feed the ever-rising demand of our more populated areas, isn’t it only fair to ask that those areas also bear the burden of producing it? What’s the reason 6,000MW of solar can’t be sited there? Not enough sun? At the very least, your silence on the question makes it appear you are willing to sacrifice another three hundred acres of Kingdom forestland (and untold thousands more to reach 6,000MW of solar power) to advance a principle that smacks of reverse NIMBYism. (We need it and it’s fine as long as it is in YOUR backyard.)

        And that, my friend, is what led Ethan Allen to remark to New York’s attorney general so long ago: “The gods of the valley are not the gods of the hills, and you shall understand it.” Learning to understand that is (IMHO) the philosophical difference between being a “Vermonter” and being someone “from away.”

        Thanks again for the conversation.

      2. John S. Walters Post author

        Hey, I’ve got solar panels on my roof. I don’t think anyone is exempt from this effort. If some renewables advocate comes out against a project in his/her town, then s/he’s a hypocrite. If someone proposes a solar farm in East Montpelier, I’ll listen with an open mind and a bias toward approval.

        I do, believe it or not, want us to have a responsible, inclusive approach to siting decisions. That doesn’t mean that anyone gets a veto. And it doesn’t mean that

  7. Mark Whitworth

    You wrote:
    “I was referring to Energize Vermont’s own alternative energy plan, released a few years ago under your predecessor Luke Snelling. It outlined a path to meeting our renewable goals that depended almost entirely on Hydro Quebec and Seabrook nuclear.”

    You have mischaracterized Luke’s discussion. His plan did not depend on HQ or Seabrook. Rather, it acknowledged that Vermont utilities had existing contracts in place.

    GMP is no doubt awaiting your advice on how to replace the baseload power that these generators provide. Will you advise them to replace HQ with the industrial turbine complex in Lowell? Sheffield? Maybe replacing a 300-acre forest in Barton with solar panels will do the trick.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      I think you’re the one mischaracterizing Luke’s report. It projected a generous supply of renewable energy without much buildout within Vermont. You can’t do that without depending on HQ and Seabrook. Without those two sources, Luke’s report would have fallen dismally short.

      And when did I say anything about replacing baseload power? We build up the renewable supplies, we lessen our dependence on nonrenewables, we contribute to a sustainable future. But I don’t expect to convince you; nor should you expect to convince me.

  8. Sen. Joe Benning

    Well John, an interesting development has taken place that is pertinent to our discussion and it is too important to miss. You can find it in today’s (9/2/15) story on VPR called: “Irasburg Turbine Proposal Brings More Wind Debate To The NEK.”

    Our friend Mr. Blittersdorf has announced that advancements in wind technology have reached the point where lower wind speed industrial wind turbines are now profitable in areas previously not possible. (That famous wind strength map is no longer relevant.) No surprises for me here, since me, the guy that owns that small tower just south of Exit 13 on I-89, and every sailboat owner on Lake Champlain already figured this out. Blittersdorf wants to put up two wind towers, each one 500 feet tall from base to blade tip. (These would become the tallest in Vermont, just 55 feet shorter than the Washington monument and twice as tall as our statehouse.) And where does he want to do that? Well, in the Kingdom of course! Just a stone’s throw from where Ranger Solar wants to level 300 acres of forest for Vermont’s largest solar array. (Are you noticing any Kingdom pattern here yet?)

    So the great news is that technology has improved! There aren’t any excuses now. Hubbard Hill and the Lake Champlain valley should be fair game for strings of five hundred foot tall whirlygigs! And there never was any reason to thwart 300 acre solar arrays in the very same locations. But don’t hold your breath waiting for developers to file applications. They are too busy turning the Kingdom from pristine wilderness into Vermont’s premier renewable energy power plant. Ought to be a great tourist draw!

    And while I’m proud of you for having a solar panel on your roof, Mr. Blittersdorf has already told us that if every available roof in Vermont had solar arrays it would only equal 1% of our solar energy needs. So sorry, your efforts and the efforts of every other Vermonter who has done the same thing just aren’t anywhere good enough to meet our (his?) goals.

    I submit it is high past time to calculate how much acreage is necessary for 6,000MW of solar and define what 200 miles of ridgelines are targeted for 3,000MW of wind power. Then we can have an intelligent debate on whether we reach our renewable energy goals with solely in-state production or concede it is acceptable to do so with sources outside Vermont. Until then there is a parameter vacuum and industrial developers are taking advantage because the PSB has no guidelines. My hope is that well-meaning idealists such as yourself awake from their euphoric concept-induced slumber in time to recognize that Vermont being overrun by industrial power plants creating more power than we can use does not equate to idyllic “working landscapes.”

    Thanks again.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      It would certainly be good to know how much acreage is necessary… although, as technology changes, the number might change as well.

      As for more efficient turbines, I take that as good news. If we can make ’em work somewhere besides ridgelines, then fine. If they want to put ’em in Lake Champlain and the big-money landowners whine about viewscapes, they should just shut up. Just like the Kennedys whining about turbines off the Vineyard or Cape Cod, and Donald Trump suing to block turbines in the ocean near his Scottish golf course.

      And as I said yesterday regarding solar, if someone comes up with a proposal for a wind farm in East Montpelier, I will approach with open mind and a bias toward approval. I really don’t mind seeing these things. To me, they are markers of transition to a more earth-friendly future.


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