By Peter Sterling
Over the last decade or so, while most of us weren’t looking, something very concerning has happened in Vermont: It has become easier to build commercial strip development — for example, a Dollar General store — in a rural town than to build renewable energy.
Between 2006-2020, 37 Dollar General stores opened in Vermont. By comparison, Vermont hasn’t allowed a utility scale wind array to be built since 2012 and none are being planned for the foreseeable future. I’m not picking on Dollar General, they aren’t breaking any laws and in many communities are the go-to place to shop. But something is very wrong when it’s harder to build the renewable energy we need to stave off climate chaos than it is to build another chain big-box store.
Why is this? In general, unless they trigger Act 250, most commercial projects only have to comply with local zoning ordinances. Meanwhile, commercial renewable energy projects have to run a regulatory gauntlet that gets more restrictive and less predictable every year.
By law, Vermont’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) treats each application for commercial wind and solar as a “contested case” litigation requiring more extensive evidence for approval than any other local or state agency. Most wind and solar projects must meet all the same criteria as apply to other development under Act 250 plus comply with additional PUC rules, special criteria set by the Legislature, comply with town and regional plans and obtain permits from the Agency of Natural Resources before being considered for approval by the PUC. Going through all of this excessive permitting adds a lot of cost to these renewable energy projects and often results in otherwise well planned projects being rejected. In the end, all of this red tape greatly disincentivizes Vermont from going solar.
In one example, a landowner in Bradford was trying to install solar panels on a parcel near a highway interchange that was behind a Hannaford shopping plaza and next to an existing auto parts supply warehouse, self-storage facility, convenience store and gas station. The PUC denied the permit for the solar array based on its aesthetic impacts to this industrial area. It is hard to comprehend how the PUC believes solar panels conflict with the aesthetic nature of an industrial park.
The PUC has also crafted the most restrictive statewide sound standard for wind power in the nation, making the siting of wind energy projects basically impossible. Vermont now has a standard for sound from a wind turbine (39 decibels allowed at night) that is quieter than even the 40 decibels of background noise generally allowed in a library! And since no one is planning on damming any more of Vermont’s rivers for hydropower, the only way for us to create more renewable energy in the short term is more solar.
Vermont uses about 2,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity annually while building about 40 megawatts of new solar each year — roughly 2.5 percent of our total power need. This is nowhere near enough for Vermont to be playing its part in combating climate change. And the need for renewables is sure to grow as state policies continue to encourage us to kick our fossil fuel addiction and electrify our transportation and home heating and cooling.
Experts I have talked to in the solar energy field say we should be deploying at least 80 megawatts of renewables each year, and could if only state regulators would treat the renewable energy industry like they do other businesses — with a fair and predictable permitting process that allows for properly conceived and sited projects that are supported in a town’s plan to move forward.
Summing up the problem (and solution) Bill McKibben, a Vermonter leading the global effort to combat climate change, says it best in his outstanding piece, “A Thing So ‘Shocking and Offensive’ It Literally Can’t Be Permitted.” The title refers to a sentence in a PUC decision rejecting a solar array visible to just 10 homes, based on aesthetics.
“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,” he writes, “people finally taking responsibility for the impact our lives have on the world and the people around us.”
Peter Sterling is the executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, representing Vermont’s renewable energy business community.