Large Scale Wind Is Dead in Vermont. Is Solar Following the Same Path?

Not Exactly As Illustrated.

The Public Utility Commission is scheduled to hear a case on Friday that could tighten the screws on large-scale solar energy in Vermont, a process that’s sneakily been underway for a while. And to judge by the record to date, its decision seems unlikely to be solar-friendly.

South Street Solar is seeking commission approval for a 30-acre solar array on farmland owned by Middlebury College, which would provide almost one-third of the college’s electricity and help reach its goal of using 100% renewable energy by the year 2028. The project sparked some local opposition because Vermont, but it passed muster with the town planning commission and selectboard.

If the PUC rejects the request or puts significant obstacles in the way, it will underscore a growing problem with solar siting in Vermont: Almost every potential site, even the seemingly ideal, is unacceptable to some.

Everyone is okay with rooftop solar, but there’s simply not enough rooftop acreage to make a real contribution to our renewable energy goals. So where else can it go? We don’t want to clear forest land, we don’t want to impact wetlands or waterways, we don’t want to clutter scenic areas, we don’t want it too close to where we live, and sometimes we don’t even want it on not-at-all-scenic, unused property.

The latter problem killed a solar proposal in Bradford. You know the site if you’ve taken Exit 16 off I-91 or gone shopping at Farm-Way. It’s a large parcel on the outskirts of town within sight of the freeway. There is some commercial development (an auto parts store and a supermarket), but there’s still plenty of vacant land. The site has, I think it’s safe to say, no esthetic appeal whatsoever.

But it didn’t happen because the regional planning commission decided that the land should be reserved for potential development. This site should have been an idea spot for a solar array.

Now, back to Middlebury.

The South Street site is owned by the college and used as a hayfield by local farmers. But there is no shortage of good farmland in the area, and not all of it is in use. Hayfields are good habitat for grassland birds, which have been in serious decline in Vermont. This caught the attention of the Agency of Natural Resources.

Obviously, a solar array is not good for grassland birds. But neither are contemporary farming practices. Hayfields are more frequently harvested than they used to be, and this disrupts the birds’ breeding season. That’s why they’re in decline; their nests are destroyed by ill-timed harvesters. That’s what happened in the spring of 2020 on the South Street site.

Besides, it’s 30 acres. It’s a drop in the bucket of potential bird habitat. If ANR was truly serious about grassland birds, it would try to enact a rule to ban nesting-season harvesting. Why isn’t it? I suspect it’s because this project is a target of opportunity. Imagine the screaming from the ag industry and its allies, if ANR sought to limit the harvest.

The agency has called for South Street to invest in habitat mitigation. After initially balking at the idea, the developer is now willing to do so. In fact, it’s willing to create 60 acres of good habitat — twice as large as the proposed array, and much better for birds than heavily-mowed farm fields.

That wasn’t enough for ANR. Six months after South Street first filed its request with the PUC, the agency intervened. It wants the PUC to deny South Street’s request. Its objections have nothing to do with wildlife preservation; they are all about the agency’s view that South Street hasn’t followed the rules of the process.

In January, PUC hearing officer Gregg Faber issued a review of the plan. He found that the array would provide benefits to the college and the state, it didn’t interfere with regional development plans, it would not put undue pressure on the power grid, it would not have an undue effect on the environment or historic sites or wetlands or transportation or flooding risk or public health and safety, among many other things.

It was all positive except for one thing: “There is insufficient evidence to support a finding that there would be no undue adverse effect on necessary wildlife habitat.” And for that reason, Faber recommended rejection of the proposal.

Remember, if you please, that ANR itself didn’t cite habitat in its opinion. Its opposition was based on process, not fact.

If South Street loses, it will likely continue to pursue the project. It’s already jumped through a fair number of hoops, and it has a committed customer for the power. But the fact that it has navigated a lengthy process only to face defeat due to “insufficient evidence” of a problem, ought to scare anyone who wants Vermont to develop its own renewable power. There are just too many obstacles, too many reasons to say “No,” and most developers will just decide it’s not worth the hassle — and the potential for rejection after all that time and trouble.

If we go down that road, large-scale solar will never take root in Vermont. And with no immediate prospects for wind development, we’ll have damn few options for making our own contribution to fighting climate change. And we’ll continue to get our “renewable energy” from Hydro Quebec’s massive, habitat-obliterating, hydroelectric plants in the far north.

One more thing. As I’ve written before, the three-member PUC includes two Peter Shumlin appointees. So this isn’t merely a matter of the Scott Administration’s unfriendly attitude toward home-grown renewables. It continues to be a puzzlement to me that two Democratic appointees — one of them U.S. Rep. Peter Welch’s wife Margaret Cheney — have been so sour on renewable energy. They ought to be getting some blowback from the Vermont Democratic Party, our self-proclaimed warriors in the climate battle.

(The six-year term of the other Shumlin appointee, Sarah Hofmann, is up this year. That’ll give Scott the opportunity to gain a majority on the PUC. Which is likely to make it even harder to make progress on locally generated renewable energy.)

Update. Last Friday, a.k.a. Newsdump Day, Scott announced the appointment of Riley Allen to replace Hofmann. Allen had served as deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Service since 2017. Which means, yep, he was a Scott appointee. Expect him to follow the governor’s policy on renewables. Not great.

7 thoughts on “Large Scale Wind Is Dead in Vermont. Is Solar Following the Same Path?

  1. Greg Dennis

    It was the Agency of Natural Resources that stepped in and blocked a very well planned, well screened solar field a couple years ago, because it could be viewed from Mt. Philo — which is a state park — as one small piece of a very expansive viewshed. The agency almost literally can’t see the forest for the trees.

    Given ANR’s anti-solar positions, one wonders what natural resources it intends to protect. Apparently the actual climate we live in isn’t one of them.

    Reply
  2. H. Jay Eshelman

    Re: “And we’ll continue to get our “renewable energy” from Hydro Quebec’s massive, habitat-obliterating, hydroelectric plants in the far north.”

    The characterization of HQ’s hydro project as ‘habitat-obliterating… in the far north’’ is a false dichotomy on several counts. After all, which ‘habitat-obliterating’ process do you want to see? Is the trashing of Vermont’s forests, ridgelines, and idyllic pasture-land acceptable? Do you want to build more homes simply to install more solar collectors? The only power source that meets your contrived requirement is, dare I say it, nuclear.

    HQ provides green, sustainable power from systems already in existence. That you believe HQ’s power system is ‘habitat-obliterating’ is, and has been for a long time, debatable. A discussion I am happy to engage because I’ve been studying HQ’s history and methods.

    But also keep this in mind. HQ’s infrastructure already exists. Short of tearing it down, whatever ill-effects your mind has conjured up, the idea is late to the discussion. The facts remain: HQ is the fourth largest power generator in the world. It’s not ‘the far north’, it’s our neighbor. HQ has offered to provide all of the power Vermont can use at 1/3rd the cost of Wind and Solar. And its power is carbon neutral for the most part.

    The question is, how many babies would you have us throw out with this bathwater?

    Reply
  3. Annette Smith

    Didn’t take me long to figure out whose water you’re carrying in this whine. So Encore Redevelopment is not happy they chose a site in Bradford that was specifically identified by the town for infill for commercial business?

    You should at least get the name of the Middlebury project right, it’s ER South Street Solar, a 5 mW project.

    The attitude about how there’s plenty of hay fields and plenty of habitat for grassland birds shows a tremendous disregard for the planet’s loss of biodiversity that pretty much every knowledgable scientist is identifying as a major crisis.

    There are plenty of places in the built environment to put solar. Look at Rutland City High School’s parking lot and the extensive solar canopy. How about covering Middlebury College’s extensive parking lots and lawns with solar instead of covering up yet more important farmland with glass and steel.

    And before doing more on ag soils, can we find out if the solar panels are treated with PFAS chemicals that leach into the soils? Will Encore Redevelopment do some testing at their existing sites and assure the public that the soils aren’t being contaminated with PFAS?

    Reply
  4. Annette Smith

    Regarding Riley Alllen’s appointment to the PUC, I guess you missed that he came to DPS under the Scott administration after 7 years at the Regulatory Assistance Project which is about as pro-renewable as you get. From Riley’s Linked-in Page:
    The Regulatory Assistance Project
    Total Duration7 yrs 2 mos

    TitleSenior Advisor
    Dates EmployedMay 2016 – Feb 2017
    Employment Duration10 mos
    LocationMontpelier, Vermont USA
    Provided technical assistance for RAP projects in the US, India, Africa, and the Caribbean. Assistance focused on legislative, regulatory, and policy reform to country partners.

    TitleGlobal Research Manager
    Dates EmployedJan 2010 – May 2016
    Employment Duration6 yrs 5 mos
    LocationMontpelier, Vermont
    Provided supervision of research staff and provided ad hoc research assistance to RAP regional staff in China, the EU, and the US. Also provided technical assistance to projects in Africa and the Caribbean region.

    Reply
  5. snoutsworthy

    That was a pretty big leap you made over rooftop solar by rejecting it out of hand. Rooftop solar would contribute some renewable energy. So would solar panel arrays in parking lots. It’s being done in other places and it works. It may not be as cheap for the developers as using an agricultural field or other open area, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work, and rooftop and parking lot solar does not destroy viable agricultural land or other natural resources, including bird habitat. As always, follow the money.

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      The problem is, we just don’t have enough rooftops or parking lots. Would you like us to build a bunch more shopping malls to accommodate rooftop solar?

      Reply
  6. Bird Dog

    Your post leaves out a lot of other information about how this project proposal and approval occurred, but yes “South Street” (not “State Street”) Solar and the College tried to push this through without trying to get any community support, so you shouldn’t be so surprised or dismissive (after “because Vermont”, you left off, “where people give a shit”) that there’s been push-back at other levels. Industrial power production is squarely targeted at natural areas that haven’t been developed for a reason, and if companies are trying to take the easiest options, instead of working with municipalities to co-operatively come up with preferred energy sites, they’re picking a bad fight.

    Reply

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