Solar Split: Does large-scale energy development belong in Vermont?

Published: Feb. 24, 2023 at 6:50 PM EST
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SHAFTSBURY, Vt. (WCAX) - People in Shaftsbury are wrestling with the idea of a utility-scale solar field in the small town. Could your town be next and would you welcome it?

The developer already has plans for a similar project in Fair Haven and another one two-and-a-half-times larger in a town yet to be disclosed.

People in places like Shaftsbury may be saying not in my backyard, but they are also raising the question of whether large-scale energy development belongs anywhere in Vermont, and whether we can meet our energy and climate goals without it.

“I know that property intimately, hunted it my whole life, just enjoyed it,” said Seth Stratton, a lifelong resident of Shaftsbury.

Stratton strongly opposes the 20-megawatt solar project proposed in his town, an array the size of 65 football fields.

He, along with others opposed to this project, isn’t against solar, but, “Vermont really needs to focus on that, smaller projects,” Stratton said.

Small projects have been Vermont’s bread and butter. We currently generate about 400 MW of solar electricity on a perfect sunny day.

Annually, solar meets about 10% of Vermont’s energy needs. Largely, that generation comes from projects under 5 MW, one-quarter the size of the Shaftsbury proposal.

Some say that generation is important for Vermont, but regionally, we should be doing more.

“Our hope to stop climate change would be to scale up renewables and not fossil fuels,” said Peter Sterling of Renewable Energy Vermont.

Renewable Energy Vermont estimates the state needs about 2,300 more acres of solar to double our renewable generation and meet our goals. That’s just under the size of Barre City.

Sterling says he doesn’t see the major megawatt projects as part of Vermont’s electric future but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be here.

“When we bring on a new solar panel here in Vermont, at some point it displaces natural gas being burned somewhere else in New England,” Sterling said.

He says those larger-scale projects will benefit the region. He says we ask others to generate the power we use now, so why shouldn’t we return the favor with clean energy?

“If we don’t do it, we are asking someone else to do it and there is a very basic justice issue there,” Sterling said.

But while the battle for Vermont’s bucolic nature plays out in Shaftsbury, other towns are going under the microscope by developers like Freepoint.

About one-third of Vermont towns have set what sort of renewable development they will welcome through enhanced energy plans, but roughly two-thirds of communities don’t have any limits.

“As we electrify, it will be important that we continue to have a diverse set of renewable and clean resources to meet our power needs. Solar can and should absolutely play a role,” said T.J. Poor of the Vermont Department of Public Service.

In 2021, Vermont utilities purchased 64% of their electricity from renewable resources, including wind, solar, biomass and hydropower. The location of those resources ranges from Connecticut to Quebec to the coast of Maine.

“Down the line, it becomes cost-effective or changes the economics of projects of where they are located,” Poor said.

Meaning where that power is generated could impact your rates.

The Department of Public Service is embarking on a public engagement process to better understand Vermonters’ appetite for renewables and where they are located.

“Do Vermonters care if projects are sited in or out of Vermont? We really want to better understand how we might tweak our policies,” Poor said.

Back in Shaftsbury, Stratton says it just makes sense for other states to host the renewables; Vermont’s climate contribution is its green nature.

He wants the Public Utility Commission to bail them out of the Shaftsbury project, putting a stop to development. For him, it feels like his whole town is at risk.

“If this goes through, this isn’t the town I ever remember, it isn’t Shaftsbury,” Stratton said.

The Shaftsbury project is about to go in front of the PUC. They will review a comprehensive proposal from the developer ranging in material from environmental impacts to long-term planning of the site. The PUC will also take into account the community concerns.

Related Story:

Solar Split: Shaftsbury residents oppose utility-scale solar