Commentary, Opinion

‘Offensive and shocking:’ We better come to terms with solar panels soon

By Bill McKibben

Vermont gets good press, and I’ve generated my share of it — especially after the pandemic years I’m proud of the Green Mountain State. But this is a different kind of story: a story of a state that’s failing to understand we’re actually in a climate emergency, and so continuing with business that looks a lot like usual. I think that that’s typical of too many places — and since science says that business as usual must end right now to deal with our crisis, it seems to me a story worth telling.

It begins with a man named Thomas Hand, who grew up in the Manchester region. His father and uncle owned the town Chevy dealership; he grew up working on cars, before making it up Route 7 for college at Middlebury, where I met him as a young and idealistic student — among other things, his mechanical abilities helped him pilot a biodiesel school bus across the country to promote alternative energy, filtering grease from Chinese restaurants to fill the tank…

He took his education and his practical skills and his passion, and in the years since graduation has built a small business constructing solar farms in different parts of the country — precisely the work that physicists tell us is the most important task on earth, since if we can’t cut our fossil fuel emissions in half by 2030 we will have no chance at meeting the climate targets we set in Paris just six years ago.

Because he knew the terrain of his boyhood best, many of Hand’s projects have been built there — often out of sight in the abandoned slate quarries that pock the landscape. “But the reality is there are only so many old pits,” he said. “The reality is that you can’t hide all these things. You can hide some of them, but not all.”

And so he took an option on a plot of land on a road near the town of Manchester, and began drawing up plans for a 500-kilowatt solar array on the eight-acre parcel, not far from a group of homes.

“We knew folks wouldn’t want to see it, so we offered to screen it from the start,” he said. He spent $20,000 hiring an “aesthetics expert” and coming up with the plan for plantings — three hundred trees and bushes. Those didn’t placate the neighbors, but after six public meetings over the course of a year the town granted it the necessary permits, at which point Hand applied to the state’s Public Utilities Commission for a “certificate of public good.”

That’s where the process went off the rails.

With the state now in charge, the neighbors issued a reprise of their objections. Their letters are listed in the record: “This is unfair to property owners who will see property devaluation and suffer detraction to their daily life.” “This solar array will detract from their view.” “It will change the feel of our neighborhood.”

And fair enough. These are not millionaire second-home owners (of which Manchester has its share); these are just normal people. No one likes change, and solar arrays are not, in and of themselves, beautiful. I have two of them in the backyard—they dominate the view to the north, about 20 feet from the porch. They’re ungainly racks of steel and glass; I’ve left a beach ball-sized wasp nest hanging from the bottom of one, both because it means they won’t build in the same spot next year and because it makes it look a bit less sterile.

But as Hand points out, the Manchester land is zoned “mixed use.” Any developer could build dozens of condos on the site, or a warehouse, “or a paddle tennis court with 16-foot-high lights.” (There’s a warehouse down the road.) And if those had been proposed, the state’s public utility commission would not have been in a position to do what they did in this case: turn down Hand’s proposal, entirely and explicitly on aesthetic grounds.

Their 54-page ruling goes through a long checklist of damage the proposed array won’t do: it wouldn’t interfere with historical artifacts, it wouldn’t “damage public investment,” it wouldn’t “endanger public health.” Also, it won’t affect the Indiana bat because the only possible roost tree won’t be cut down, it won’t impact the wood turtle because the fencing would have holes for “wood turtle entry and exit.” Indeed, the sole and only quibble that the state’s hearing examiner raised concerned the appearance of the arrays. And here he had to overrule not only the aesthetics expert that Hand had hired, but also the aesthetics expert designated by the state’s own Dept. of Public Service, who had given his official blessing:

“The limited views where the Project will be visible are mitigated by the proposed landscape mitigation plan in conjunction with existing mitigating factors like the relatively short duration of view and highly limited viewshed area. In addition, the Project fits with existing land uses.”

Against all that, the commission and their hearing officer ruled instead that because some of the screening trees would be deciduous, views might not be fully blocked in winter; that (like most spots in the Green Mountain State) there was a mountain—in this case Mt. Equinox—in the ‘“viewshed”; that the color scheme of solar panels (“dark or galvanized steel in color”) is “out of context with the area;” and that in sum the project would be “offensive or shocking to the average person.”

I’ve tried to talk to some of those involved in the decision — because there’s still weeks to go before appeals run out, I’ve gotten “No comment.” But here’s what I think they might say: Vermont already has clean electricity. Which—thanks to massive purchases from the Hydro Quebec complex in Canada — is true, albeit more fully on paper than in fact…

But the point is not the present, but the future: Vermonters, like Americans everywhere, run up large carbon totals driving cars and heating their homes with oil and gas; these all need to be converted to electricity this decade to meet the state’s carbon goals. By Hand’s estimate, it’s 1,000 gallons of fossil fuel per Vermonter. So we need more electricity — a lot more. Some can come from rooftops and gravel pits, but some is going to need to come from where we can see it.

None of this is easy: no one, especially politicians, like telling people that we need to change. That’s why it’s been so hard not just to build solar panels and wind turbines (which are effectively blocked in Vermont), but to densify housing in cities across the country, even as everyone acknowledges it would help us cope with impossible housing costs and ruinous commutes. It’s why we have trouble siting homeless shelters and drug treatment centers, even amidst desperate need.

The ultimate irony is that the commissioners actually did have to consider climate change in their opinion, ruling tersely that “the project would not result in undue air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions.” They’d checked a legal box, and their finding was true enough, but the real point of course is precisely the opposite: such projects are our only real hope of cutting those emissions while we still have time. It would have been right to at least acknowledge that bedrock truth in passing.

Building clean energy is the project of our era on earth. And at some level it really is an aesthetic issue. When we look at a solar panel or a wind turbine, we need to be able to see—and our leaders need to help us see, because that’s what leadership involves—that there’s something beautiful reflected back out of that silicon: people finally taking responsibility for the impact our lives have on the world and the people around us. We are in an emergency, and an emergency calls for imagination, for literally seeing things in a new way. To hide that truth behind a screen of words is—well, offensive and shocking.

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