Legislative Report 1/25/2016 - Renewable Energy Siting

It’s 6 PM and you’re getting home from work. You walk into your home and flip the switch to turn on the lights, open the refrigerator to get something out for dinner, and turn on the TV to watch the news. All of that relies on electricity.  But how often do we think about where that electricity is coming from?

For at least half a century the average person has taken electricity for granted. Maybe we’ve had a vague notion that a power plant somewhere was pumping out those electrons; but unless we experienced an outage, we didn’t give our energy sources much thought. The fact is that until recently most of that energy was coming from coal, oil, natural gas or nuclear reactors.  While nuclear has its own problems, the others pumped tons of CO2 into the atmosphere contributing to a steady and accelerating rise in greenhouse gas concentrations and rising global temperatures.

Now that we have become aware of the effects of CO2 on climate change, we have taken steps to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy sources. Vermont has become a leader in renewable energy, getting 40% of our electricity from renewables like wind, solar, hydro and biomass which includes wood and methane from landfills and biodigestors. More than 16,000 well-paying jobs have been created, the highest number per capita in the U.S., and hundreds of millions of dollars in transmission costs have been avoided by distributing generation close to where it is being used, thereby helping to keep Vermont’s electric rates the second lowest in New England.

This accelerated growth of large-scale solar and wind has also resulted in pushback by those who focus on their effects on ridgelines, landscapes and neighbors. These growing pains are often caused by poor planning and communication by developers as well as a negative reaction to the aesthetics by some people. Unfortunately, any type of energy generation has negative consequences, and we need to keep in mind the degree of harm each type entails. While we may not want to see a farm field covered with solar panels or industrial wind on our ridgelines, they are nothing compared to massive oil spills, tar sands mining, or mountaintop destruction for coal.

This past week we on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee heard testimony from citizens and community leaders regarding the siting of wind and solar facilities. A common theme seemed to be that renewable energy is laudable, but needs to be properly sited and scaled down.  For example, a 500 foot tall wind turbine a half mile from a residential development is not acceptable. Moreover, towns would like the Public Service Board to give more consideration to their town plans and zoning regulations.

While the Vermont Senate is currently developing legislation addressing these issues, my committee is preparing to weigh in once the bill comes to us. Threading this needle won’t be easy. We want to retain the broad public support for renewables and continue to grow this important part of our economy. We want to give town government an appropriate role. I believe we can have large scale wind with minimal impact to our ridgelines and communities if they are properly located.  We can have large scale solar that benefits farmers and communities. And we can continue to build out residential and group net metering that will benefit consumers, make the electric grid more reliable, and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.  We just have to find a reasonable compromise.

I welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).