Opinion
September 25, 2014

Should solar projects have more public input?

Here’s a comment by a Vermont solar company executive that offers as much hope as it presents concern: “In the future, solar panels are going to be as ubiquitous as barns and silos, and we should be working toward it, not against it.”

The comment is by SunCommon spokesman Mike McCarthy. The hope it presents is the growing amount of energy into the grid by renewable energy sources, specifically solar. Vermonters have largely agreed that the more power we can generate from renewable energy, the better off we’ll be in the long-term.

The concern is that if solar arrays are really to become as prevalent as silos and barns, what will that do to Vermont’s rural aesthetic? Will open fields be no more? Will scenic views toward the mountains forever be filled with shiny, metallic solar arrays beaming in the foreground?

The concern over the aesthetics is even more personal, and dramatic, if you are the neighbor living next door to a proposed project that has skirted Act 250, local zoning rules and other checks on development because solar projects go directly to the Public Service Board for approval. It is easy to see how such neighbors might feel helpless in such a process, and peeved that the current system seems to allow so little say for individual concerns or even the concerns—and objections—of town officials. Tweaks to the process may be needed.

Issues surrounding utilities, however, are rarely straightforward and inherently involve conflicting factors. The reason the PSB is a quasi-judicial entity that stands separate from the legislature and the governor’s administration is that it needs an environment free of political pressure to make decisions on what constitutes serving the public good, even though it might cause inconvenience or a loss of value to an individual property owner. That’s not a process that should be subject to the whims of political pressure.

Furthermore, Vermonters have largely determined, through laws passed in the legislature, that supporting solar initiatives is in the public good because it lowers our dependence on fossil fuels and reduces carbon dioxide pollution.

But certainly most Vermonters would also be shocked to learn that a commercial solar project could be sited within 100 feet of a neighbor’s house, in an area zoned agricultural, without going through any public process. Vermonters might also be shocked at the prospect of a solar array within the boundaries of every Vermont farm — or close to it. No one will accuse solar arrays of being as unsightly as billboards, but if the billboard law was passed largely to preserve Vermont’s scenic views and rural aesthetic, then it’s fair to ask if state policy should truly allow solar arrays to fill as many plots of land as possible with next to no public input and faint oversight by a board use focus is to permit development it deems to be in the public good.

One solution is to encourage all solar companies to adopt the groSolar model, another Vermont solar company, which says it consults with town planners and town officials on potential solar projects before going to the PSB for approval. “We just think it’s better to go to the towns first to see what their thoughts are on the initial proposal to see if we can work on them for setbacks and screening,” said Executive Vice President of Operations Rod Viens. “We want to make them comfortable in the project and in our approach, so that they don’t intervene in our (PSB) petitions.”

It’s an private-party approach that could smooth the way for most projects and ease public angst over what might happen to the state’s scenic vistas.

That said, the Legislature might also want to reconsider the issue. The energy industry has undergone significant changes in the past decade or so—with natural gas, solar and wind power all becoming more prolific— while the PSB’s process has remained relatively unchanged. Looking at how to improve that process, while still fulfilling the public good, might be time well spent.

By Angelo S. Lynn

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