Courtesy photo

Representative Mike Yantachka

I was disappointed to read about the Public Utility Commission’s denial of a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) for the proposed solar array off Route 7 near Mount Philo. Viewed from the eastern overlook of Mount Philo, the area covered by the solar array would look no larger than a postage stamp in the expanse. While I understand the desire to maintain the magnificent views of the Champlain Valley from the park’s overlooks, I question our inability to accept renewable energy infrastructure as part of Vermont’s working landscape. Why is it that we accept certain man-made structures such as barns, silos, inns, etc., as acceptable and others such as a solar array as blights on the landscape? If the landowner were to erect a number of hoop houses covering the same area for growing plants, the visual effect would be about the same but probably would not elicit a peep from the public.

I think a lot of this attitude has to do with what we’re used to seeing. How often do we notice the utility poles that line our roadways? We may not like how a gas station convenience store along Route 7 looks, but we are willing to accept it. These structures could be considered unsightly, but we don’t object to them because we see them as being necessary for providing the services we value.

The two super-storms of Harvey and Irma, whose power was magnified by the warming oceans, are the most recent extreme effects of climate change. There is no denying that climate change is being caused by the exponential increase in our use of fossil fuels over the last 150 years. Many people choose to take actions to mitigate their own carbon footprint, such as improving the energy efficiency of their homes, installing solar panels or small wind turbines for household use, driving an electric vehicle (EV) or using alternative transportation. While these individual actions help, they have a limited effect, even when taken cumulatively, because they are often unavailable to the majority of people due to factors such as income, availability, location or circumstance. For example, it doesn’t make sense for renters to install solar panels or a heat pump in their unit. Likewise, landlords don’t have the incentive because renters are generally responsible for their own utility bills. As a result, to achieve the renewable energy goals we desire, there have to be societal efforts to provide opportunities for those who are otherwise shut out of the renewable energy economy. Climate change is a global problem with society-wide consequences, and it will take society-wide efforts to address it.

This is where large-scale solar and wind power can help. Currently 55 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources. About 25 percent of Vermont’s electrical energy comes from hydro power, 20 percent from biomass, eight percent from wind and about two percent from solar. Vermont has a statutory goal of reaching 75 percent renewable electric energy by 2032. Our utilities are required to reach this goal by the Renewable Energy Standard Act (Act 56) of 2015. Achieving these goals will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve public health, create more high paying jobs that already make up five percent our workforce, and improve the reliability of our electrical system through distributed generation. While solar net metering and wind are currently a small part of our energy mix, they are the fastest growing segment of our renewable energy economy.

However, there seems to be a disconnect between our desire to achieve these goals and our acceptance of the necessary infrastructure. Just as we have become used to seeing a variety of alterations to our landscape from buildings, roads and utility poles, we need to start seeing solar arrays and wind towers as part of our working landscape too. They don’t have to be everywhere, but they need to be somewhere. A harvest of solar energy is just as useful and valuable as a harvest of corn, barley, hay or grapes. A line of wind turbines on a ridge brings as much or more to our lifestyle as the ski trails cut into a mountainside. To meet our current and future energy needs, only a small fraction of our landscape is required for this infrastructure. Kingdom Community Wind in Lowell, the largest wind farm in the state, occupies only 4 of Vermont’s 400 miles of ridgelines. Over time, I expect that we will get used to seeing these elements as part of the Vermont character. This needs to happen sooner rather than later.