Whether we want to admit it or not, renewable energy in Vermont has a predicament. The current administration, renewable energy cheerleaders, and profit-focused developers would love to ignore it, but the fact is large-scale renewable energy development is creating a tension in our communities that can’t be swept under the rug. Take a look at the events of the last couple of weeks.
We’ve seen our Canadian neighbors threaten to cut off water over a proposed wind project in Derby. Dozens of citizens turned out in Newark for heated questioning of the developers looking to build a wind project twice as big as the one proposed for Lowell. In Lowell the proposed turbines are so large they may soon spin across the nearest property line. In Charlotte neighbors of a solar project have a list of unresolved concerns. In North Springfield there’s strong outspoken opposition to a proposed biomass plant over health concerns, especially in children. All told, hardly a county in Vermont has been spared controversy and conflict over large-scale renewable energy development in the last year.
The desire to build industrial-scale renewable energy developments in Vermont, “as fast as we know how,” as the governor says, is at odds with how our communities evaluate development, respect their natural resources and protect their citizens. If we are going to be successful in this transition we must seek to ease the tension.
One way to ease the tension would be to develop projects in a more collaborative way. Currently developers arrive before select boards with project plans in hand, starting their sales job before hearing much community input on the size, scale or location of a potential project. With no official mechanism for community input citizens often feel slighted at the outset. Bringing the two parties together before anything is set in stone, in a moderated format, may enable better results for both sides.
Developers must also do more to demonstrate respect for the communities where they seek to build projects. If they feel projects won’t produce noise, lower property values or otherwise impact project neighbors, they need to offer those guarantees in writing to the satisfaction of their new neighbors. This is a fair and reasonable approach because if the developer is right, they will never have to deal with the repercussions, and if they are wrong, the neighbors are provided with some protection.
Lastly, we should look to decrease tension-filled situations by enabling and incentivizing the right projects in the right places. Our current subsidies and incentives create a “gold rush” approach towards large-scale renewable development, funding projects regardless of their impacts on natural resources or communities. Instead we need to incentivize the least disruptive projects and judge the worthiness of larger projects based on environmental impact. This makes good sense when you consider that technologies like residential solar can be installed with minimal impact, but might need a little extra help for the average homeowner to buy in.
If we continue our current course we will be left with divided communities and inappropriate development marring our state. With climate change an ever-growing concern we only have one shot to do this right. Let’s shift from a debate to a discussion, and give our people, natural resources and communities the seat at the table they deserve.
This op-ed is by Lukas B. Snelling, the executive director of Energize Vermont, a statewide responsible renewable energy organization based in Rutland County.
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