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.