Solar Split: Shaftsbury residents oppose utility-scale solar

Published: Feb. 23, 2023 at 6:15 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 23, 2023 at 6:34 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - As Vermont seeks to sharply cut greenhouse gas emissions in the fight against climate change, a key part of the plan is solar power. But there’s an ongoing divide over whether rooftop and micro-grid technology can deliver enough energy or whether the state needs to think bigger. The town of Shaftsbury has found itself in the cross-hairs of this fight after a Connecticut-based developer wants to build one of the state’s largest solar farms.

In the town of Shaftsbury -- population 3,400 people -- a new neighbor could be popping up, and residents have taken notice.

“My first thought was, “oh {expletive,} they are here,” said Jesse McDougall, who farms a hill that has a direct view of the northernmost tip of the proposed 20 MW solar array. He says he welcomes solar, but not this big. “We are opposed to this specific project because this project makes no sense.”

McDougall and other residents have formed a resistance, gathering signatures in an online petition. Their concerns include ecological damage and the project’s size, spanning 65 football fields.

“Look how scenic it is. I mean, for Christ... who in their right mind would do something like this? That’s what I don’t understand,” said Kit Ausschnitt, who owns land neighboring the project. He says Vermont can’t be the region’s energy solution and that the state should rather play to its strengths. “Vermont is not going to be the powerhouse of the U.S. or the world. Its bounty is its water, its green land, it’s not solar energy.”

Shaftsbury wouldn’t be the only large-scale solar field in the state. If you want to know how big 20 MW of solar is, look no further than Ludlow. Hidden on a hill away from the center of town, sits the state’s current solar farm leader. By design, it’s almost double the footprint of the proposed Shaftsbury project -- 150 acres or 113 football fields, though only 88 and a half are occupied by solar panels.

“This project will basically be completely hidden behind the trees,” said Peter Ford with Freepoint Solar, the Connecticut company behind the Shaftsbury proposal. He says the utility-scale project is designed to provide power to the regional grid. “For any project to move forward, you also need good interconnection viability to GMP or the associated host transmission system.”

And Ford says the company’s plans don’t end in Shaftsbury. “This is one of three projects that we are actively developing in Vermont.” He says they are looking at another 20MW project in Fair Haven and a 50 MW project in a location that has yet to be disclosed.

“Rooftops, small projects are great but the larger projects are going to actually make a dent in the carbon neutral future we say we all want,” Ford said. He says with policymakers’ aversion to new fossil-fuel plants, expanded natural gas lines, or even industrial wind, they believe utility-scale solar is necessary. “If we really want to add renewable reliability to the New England system, we really need to do this to scale.”

Shaftsbury residents say while they agree a carbon-free future is necessary, they want the large-scale development to start and end in Ludlow. “I don’t think we should bear the cost, disrupt our way of life, and set us back environmentally to power that need,” McDougall said.

In part two of his special report, Kevin Gaiss on Friday will look at the balance between developing solar in Vermont vs. out-of-state, and the environmental and aesthetic costs of utility-scale solar.

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