Controversy brewing about one of the latest proposed solar projects in the state is rife with ironies.
Plans by the energy developer groSolar call for a solar array with a capacity of 2.3 megawatts on a parcel of land in Rutland Town. It is a form of industrial use customarily welcomed in that community, making property productive, adding to the grand list.
In fact, an argument could be made that the solar project is an inadequate use of the land.
Rutland Town has long prided itself on its record as a friend of business. It is home to numerous industries and commercial enterprises that are an important economic engine for the region.
If the community were really pro-business and pro-growth, it would encourage a more intensive industrial or commercial use — a factory or a big box store. The town has no zoning in order to smooth the path of development and allow landowners to do what they want with their property.
With recent progress in the development of solar power, the Vermont landscape is taking on a new look. Vermonters might be of two minds about the result. More and more, motorists rounding a bend in the road may see fields of solar panels in orderly array, angled toward the sun, producing electricity. Often, the sight produces a smile of satisfaction from the feeling that Vermont is doing its part in addressing the climate crisis. The aesthetics of solar farms are also appealingly sleek, geometric, modern.
Others might round the bend and grimace at the sight of another field given over to industry. Energy production is not the traditional use for our productive agricultural lands. Turning acreage over to solar projects may take farmland out of production, placing an industrial scar on what would have been bucolic countryside. The question arises about how much land will have to be consigned to solar panels to make a significant contribution to the energy mix.
Every project has its negatives. Wind in Vermont has provoked fierce opposition because of the damage done to fragile mountaintop ecosystems and because of the presence of giant wind towers looming over nearby residences. A biomass project proposed for North Springfield has encountered difficulty lately in the report of a Public Service Board hearing officer that truck traffic needed to fuel the plant would be excessive.
So far the harm from solar panels would seem to be limited to the way it would impinge on the views of nearby residents. On the scale of things, that seems like a narrow sort of harm. “Not in my backyard” is a legitimate complaint that must always be considered, but it need not always be heeded. Someone is always impinged when change occurs — when development leads to economic progress. The balance between the private cost and the public good must receive close attention.
In the case of solar development, the public good is enormous. Supporters of solar energy development — including President Obama and Gov. Peter Shumlin — have long argued that sustainable energy will be a job creator and a boon to the economy. And addressing the climate crisis is a paramount issue of our time. Each individual project — each 2.3 megawatts — must be thought of as part of a wave of change that will add to a meaningful sum of sustainable energy.
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