Recent statements by proponents and beneficiaries of Vermont’s solar and wind industry would have us believe that the only way to “save the planet” is to destroy the very landscape that we love. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Vermont’s goal of achieving a high percentage of renewable energy is laudable. Our strategic location between Hydro-Quebec and more populous southern New England should make that goal readily achievable at a cost we can afford without destroying our precious agrarian landscape. It only takes responsible political leadership.
Unfortunately, our present leaders appear to have been deluded by a well-funded lobbying effort preaching that we must permanently turn large portions of our world-renowned landscape into wind factories and so-called “solar farms”; energy sources which can only be justified by massive subsidies paid by hard-working Vermonters to out-of-state investors. The proponents’ technique is to call anyone interested in protecting the landscape “short-sighted naysayers and deniers,” and now they even sue opponents for speaking up against their rampant destruction. Meanwhile, they plan to consume another 10,000 more acres and miles of ridgelines in the near future.
Remember? Only a decade ago the entire state of Vermont was designated “endangered” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. VNRC, now a champion of industrial-solar-and-wind-everywhere, equated all development in Vermont to the Valdez oil spill for fundraising purposes. Vermonters have often sacrificed significant economic opportunities to protect our bucolic landscape from excessive development.
The present energy policy has already had devastating effects on our landscape, though producing a miniscule amount of power. It certainly has long-term impact on Vermont’s essential tourism industry, as well as our quality of life. Many residents have been negatively impacted, and the eyesores will only get far worse as nature takes its toll.
It doesn’t have to be that way. In addition to the much more sustainable and reliable 24/7 renewable energy source at our northern doorstep, we have sufficient acres of existing parking lots, landfills, industrial parks and rooftops for the most extensive solar energy projections. The only reason these areas are not being used is that is is far cheaper for the industry to exploit open farm and forest land. Paying a pittance to some poor farmer while avoiding any significant regulatory review is far more attractive to Wall Street investors than tackling the structural and permitting hurdles of working in an already developed area.
Screening and setbacks won’t solve the problem. Skewing the present subsidies and incentives toward urban locations might help. At the very least, all rural renewable energy projects should be subject to the same level of scrutiny, and potential denial, given other industrial projects through Act 250 and local land use controls. Furthermore, the full impact of subsidizing out-of-state financiers to destroy our landscape and our tourist industry must be weighed against the cost of purchasing renewable power from Hydro-Quebec. There is no reason to consume another single acre of Vermont farmland or ridgeline until those steps are taken.
This commentary is by Leonard Duffy, of Hinesburg, who is a licensed architect, a former member and chair of both the Hinesburg and Chittenden regional planning commissions, as well as former co-chair of a state guidelines committee on Act 250 Criterion 8, Aesthetics.
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