The process by which energy projects are developed in Vermont is broken. To regulate development, we have the Public Service Board, whose members seem to have been appointed by the governor to further his agenda and policies. We have a Public Service Department that serves the governor, not the public. We have legislators who write policy to serve the very utilities and energy developers that finance their campaigns.
I have been working for years to improve the way energy is developed in Vermont – citizens, municipalities and regional planners must have more influence in the process. I have worked to establish energy siting standards that would protect our citizens, communities and environment. I have met with so little success, that this year I will take different tack: I will join with the growing number of Vermonters who have concluded that industrial wind turbines do not belong in Vermont, period. They should go the way of the billboard and be banned. I will be introducing a bill that does just that in the 2016 legislative session.
Vermont has trouble with solar projects as well. Solar should be developed on the “built environment” —rooftops, brownfields, industrial parks, parking lots, etc., and small pole mounted systems. Large projects should be designed and sited by the communities they serve, not by developers. The developers will complain that we cannot reach our goals in this manner. They are more concerned about their profits than our goals. I have come to believe that we will not reach our goals if we continue to let developers abuse our communities.
We taxpayers and ratepayers are paying for this solar build-out. We should have the right to determine how it is done and where it is done. Not only should our communities have the right to determine how their needs will be met, they should enjoy the long-term financial benefits of genuine community projects.
Once the decision is made to build industrial wind turbines, their devastating environmental impacts are obvious and unavoidable. Solar impacts may not be as obvious, but they are largely avoidable. For example, when solar is built on a rooftop, it does not create a new drip line or increase the temperature of stormwater runoff. When solar is built close to existing buildings or in brownfields, industrial parks and existing commercial areas, it doesn’t fragment forests or take agricultural land out of production.
But in Vermont, solar developers build large projects that take up farm fields and forest land. The developments reduce the amount of land available to grow food and they reduce the ability of the forest to slow down and filter runoff and sequester carbon. The developments increase water temperature and concentrate runoff. These are some of the reasons why I will also offer legislation to increase protections for agricultural and forest soils.
The Public Service Department acknowledges that Vermont energy policies and our rapid build-out will not affect climate change. The negative environmental impacts of the build-out are substantial: the fragmentation of forests, the loss of agricultural lands, the destruction of wildlife habitat, and the introduction of hundreds of acres of new impervious surfaces.
In the Vermont Land Trust annual report 2014-15 Walter Polman, VLT board chair and UVM scholar wrote, “not only do forests purify water as it flows through watersheds; they also soak it up and slow it down, decreasing the potential for erosion and flooding. Properly managed forest sequesters large amounts of carbon; as a result, they play an important role in mitigating climate change.”
According to the Vermont Department of Forest Parks and Recreation website, each acre of Vermont forestland can sequester the emissions of 62 gasoline-powered vehicles. In fact, Vermont forests remove most of the carbon that the state produces.
If our goal is to reduce carbon emissions, there are better ways to do it than covering Vermont with industrial power plants. For example, the two industrial wind plants in the Northeast Kingdom received around $80 million in federal tax dollars (our money). If that same $80 million had been spent to insulate Vermont homes, we would have insulated 23,000 Vermont homes. This would have saved Vermonters around $20 million every year and reduced our carbon emissions by more than twice what Lowell and Sheffield wind plants did. Vermont contractors would have done the work and Vermont homeowners would be enjoying the savings, keeping most of the money in the state.
One legislator said of our wind-and-solar-everywhere policy, “This is what Vermonters want.” I disagree. Most Vermonters would favor a more measured, thoughtful approach – an approach that was more respectful of our environment and our communities.
The most vocal advocates of our current path are those that profit from it. They posture as climate warriors and disparage those of us who question their motives as “deniers.” More and more Vermonters are seeing through this. As we become better informed, we understand how poorly-sited projects affect property values, families, communities and the environment. That is why over 50 towns have passed resolutions calling for energy siting reform. That is why two towns, Swanton and Irasburg, recently voted overwhelmingly to reject industrial wind development. In fact, since the turbines at Sheffield and Lowell went up, every town that has voted on wind has defeated it decisively.
The National Geographic Society rated Vermont fifth on its list of best destinations in the world because Vermont is “in excellent shape, relatively unspoiled, and likely to stay that way.” They also said “more than any other state Vermont has worked to preserve those qualities that make it unique such as scenic countryside, lively small towns, historic streetscapes and local business.”
According to the Burlington Free Press, tourism brings $1.6 billion into Vermont and one job in 10 relies on tourism. The vitality of our economy depends on our ability to protect the Vermont values that National Geographic cites. Right now, unrestrained energy development may be the biggest threats to those values.
We can reach our energy goals, but we should do it the Vermont way – small, local projects that benefit our communities while protecting our environment, our working landscape and our economy. I hope that you will join with me and demand that we fix the way we do energy in Vermont.
This commentary is by state Sen. John S. Rodgers, a Democrat representing the Essex/Orleans District in the Vermont Senate.
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