The Northeast Kingdom has become a hotbed of anti-renewable sentiment. They think they’re overburdened by the renewable buildout in their neck of the woods — although they seem to be just fine with Bill Stenger’s ambitious development plans, which would include a dramatic expansion of the Jay Peak resort with the concomitant loss of open space and wildlife habitat.
The Kingdom’s nominally Democratic Senators, Bobby Starr and John Rodgers, have proposed a bill that would effectively hamstring development of solar energy projects. They have a cover story, as they always do; this isn’t about energy, it’s about farming!
… the bill would apply Act 250 standards to renewable energy developments proposed for high-quality farmland.
Starr told finance committee members that he wants to balance the need for renewable energy with the need to conserve farmland, and he said the proposal could encourage solar development on more appropriate locations, such as rooftops.
Right. Rooftops. Vermont has so many of those.
There are a few problems with this bill. In no particular order:
— Vermont has a whole lot of farmland that’s not in use, and won’t be anytime soon. There is no shortage of farmland.
— According to VTDigger, the state’s comprehensive energy plan calls for roughly 12,000 acres of solar panels. The state contains nearly 400,000 acres of “prime agricultural soil.” Which means a maximal solar build-out would have little effect on the availability of farmland — even if every single solar panel is placed on prime land.
— There’s a far bigger threat to agricultural lands. It’s development pressure. And development — residential, industrial, or commercial — is much harder to undo than solar installations. If Sen. Starr wants to conserve farmland, he should seek much tougher limits on developing prime soils.
Of course, he is not really committed to conserving farmland, as one of his colleagues pointed out:
Sen. Virginia Lyons, D-Williston, said there should have been the exact same response from the public and lawmakers “when the Wal-Mart went up in St. Albans — that’s some of the best soil in the world; it’s good soil.”
At the time, Jeff Davis, the developer, thanked Starr for his longstanding support at the project’s groundbreaking in 2014.
Yeah, thanks, Bobby, for your stalwart environmental stewardship.
— Solar development is relatively easy to undo. Decommissioning a solar farm causes little or no impact on soil.
— There’s also the underlying assumption that we would naturally want a lot more agriculture. Do we really? How much clear-cutting would be involved if our ag sector made use of all the prime land?
How much worse would the pollution of Lake Champlain and other waters become? Agriculture is the number-one factor in Champlain’s degradation. Here’s a factoid worth pondering, courtesy of the EPA:
One dairy farm with 2,500 cows produces as much waste as a city with around 411,000 residents.
And yes, Vermont does have some dairy farms that are that big, or nearly so. And if a city’s waste was as lightly regulated as a farm’s, it’d be a national-scale scandal.
Farming gets a free pass because it’s so darn Vermonty. But in fact, it carries significant environmental implications — far more than a solar farm. Even an “industrial-scale” solar farm.
Speaking of which, how come we never apply that adjective “industrial” to farms? How many solar panels make an installation “industrial”? How many cows make a farm “industrial”? Is the Gervais Farm, with an estimated 1,800 head of cattle, “industrial”?
Of course it is. And of course we will never call it that. Because farms are, y’know, friendly little natural things, manure and all. Whereas solar arrays are cold, metallic, alien, a blight on the landscape.
I tell you what, though. If we somehow closed all the farms and replaced them with solar arrays, our environment would dramatically improve — even if you don’t include the carbon-free energy we would generate.
That is not realistic or desirable, it’s just a hypothetical. But it does point out an unrecognized double standard: if something is familiar, we accept it. If something is new or different, we reject it.
Sometimes, though, the familiar isn’t the best.
This is all beside the point. Starr and Rodgers are not serious about this bill. They know it won’t pass; they just want to make a point. It’s not a good point, and it does nothing to enhance Vermont’s environment or our energy future. But introducing bills is one of the prerogatives of a sitting lawmaker. We can’t stop them from introducing counterproductive legislation; we can simply point it out when they do.