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.