APR. 14 2014

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Annette Smith, the executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.

Nobody should be surprised by the easily anticipated opposition to the numerous proposed solar projects that are part of Green Mountain Power’s Rutland “Solar Capital” initiative. I will not call it a “plan” because plan implies that there has been some planning involved. Only GMP knows what that plan is. The corporation is not communicating with planners about “the plan.”

With one exception — the old landfill — all the sites that make up GMP’s 10mW Rutland solar initiative are on fields, some of which involve stream buffers and flood plains, most of which contain wetlands and agricultural soils and are in close proximity to neighbors. Even the landfill site raises issues because of proximity to neighbors. The Old Poor Farm site involves cutting trees and eliminating hiking trails.

Most of the developers have no connection to the Rutland region, and stand to make large profits from their investments. GMP has even petitioned the Public Service Board to keep the power output and prices they (that means you, the ratepayer) are paying to these solar developers confidential, a request the PSB wisely denied. The Rutland Herald would do a service to the community by digging into the financial structures of these deals, which apparently lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in profits for those mostly out-of-state investors. Included in that analysis should be the sale of Renewable Energy Certificates out of state, which means that according to Federal Trade Commission guidelines, GMP cannot claim that these Rutland “Solar Capital” projects are renewable energy for Vermonters.

Solar developers work with the Rutland Economic Development Corp., not town or regional planners, to identify potential sites. They enter into power purchase agreements and develop their applications without any discussion with community members who learn about the projects when they are already far along in the development phase, including having what are essentially closed-door negotiations with state agencies of natural resources and agriculture.

Neighbors, marginalized by being labelled NIMBYs, who have legitimate concerns about aesthetics including glare, environmental issues, impacts on property values, and noise — yes, solar inverters hum and contain fans — find out about these solar projects when they receive letters during the required 45-day notice period, and then must scramble to understand the PSB process, dig into their own pockets to participate in what is truly an impossible process for anyone who is not a lawyer, with a virtual certainty based on recent precedent that the PSB will rubber stamp the application because the Legislature told them to approve standard offer (at above-market prices) solar projects as quickly as possible. Read the PSB’s approval of the precedent-setting Charlotte Solar project to understand the board’s reasoning.

Several of these large Rutland solar proposals are in close proximity to stores with flat roofs and large parking lots that are more appropriate locations that would lead to broader public acceptance. Working with town and regional planners and providing opportunities for public input in the development of proposals on the built landscape rather than green fields will result in successful renewable energy for Vermonters. There is a right way to do solar, which many people who find themselves labelled “opponents” want to support, utilizing better sites developed through collaboration.

The best way to assure that renewable energy in Vermont fails is for GMP to continue with its current model. Solar development is now so lucrative and legislative policies guiding the PSB are being interpreted so strictly that there is no impediment to covering every possible open field with solar panels.

Will GMP continue to exploit our state’s resources while ignoring our communities and the people who live here and sending the benefits out of state? It does not have to be this way. Solar panels are a symbol of progress for some, but for others they are as ugly as billboards. Unlike wind turbines which cannot be hidden, there are many appropriate sites for solar panels that will enable Vermont to meets our renewable energy goals while also protecting Vermont’s aesthetic and community values.

Proponents of solar, as I am, are right to be dismayed by GMP’s exploitive and disrespectful model which is doomed to failure. It is ironic that a California organization recently gave GMP an award for its solar development, at the same time opposition is increasing in Vermont because GMP is doing it all wrong.

This map shows the projects that make up GMP’s Rutland Solar Capital initiative. The 850kW site proposed for the Old Poor Farm was recently increased to 1mW. The 150kW site is the only community solar project and has been constructed. GMP sought confidential treatment for five of the seven projects shown on the map. The 150kW community solar project and the 2.3mW landfill project were not included in the request. All of the 1mW and larger projects are in various stages in the PSB permitting process.





PSB’s decision approving Charlotte Solar
Docket No. 7844
Page 39
Discussion The Neighbors request that we be “mindful of the precedent that will be set if this project is approved[.]“53  We are concerned that the siting of Standard-Offer projects in scenic rural areas or near residences raises significant issues with respect to aesthetics and orderly development.54 Standard-Offer projects would be better sited in areas with more compatible land uses and less scenic qualities than the case here. Despite our concerns, we do not conclude that the Project violates any of the substantive criteria of Section 248. The criteria reflect the Legislature’s determination of what standards a project must meet before we may determine that a project will promote the public good. As discussed below, the criteria do not require strict compliance with local enactments, nor do they forbid all adverse impacts from development. We are also mindful that the Legislature has expressed a strong desire for a large number of Standard-Offer projects to be built and to be deployed quickly.
Regarding potential impacts on agricultural soils, I note that AAFM has withdrawn from the docket, stating that the Agency must adapt its resources to address challenges to agricultural soils other than solar facilities and can no longer routinely participate in solar facility project dockets.

Barton Solar MOU with ANR
Nearly the entirety of the existing field where the solar array is proposed to be located is a Class II Wetland.