The Public Utility Commission has split the difference on two large solar projects that have sparked interest and controversy in recent months, advancing one in Middlebury and rejecting another in Manchester.
Such projects must obtain a certificate of public good from the commission, which regulates siting of energy projects and oversees public utilities in the state.
On Friday, the commission denied the certificate to a 500-kilowatt project in Manchester on Richville Road, proposed by Manchester-based MHG Solar, because the project “would have an undue adverse effect on aesthetics,” the commission’s order said.
The commission last month granted a certificate to a 5-megawatt project based in Middlebury. The Agency of Natural Resources had objected to the project because developers had not conducted a survey to assess whether vulnerable grassland birds could be affected.
Tensions surrounding renewable energy projects — often sprouting from concern about community impact and Vermont’s natural environment — are likely to continue. The Vermont Climate Council is hurtling toward a Dec. 1 deadline to draft its initial plan that will determine how the state will drastically reduce carbon emissions.
Most immediately, the Global Warming Solutions Act requires Vermont to reduce greenhouse gas pollution to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025. Solutions will likely require broad-scale electrification.
Still, environmentalists argue the industry’s expansion requires careful consideration, and projects require thoughtful siting with community input.
Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said these two projects, which have been slowed or denied by the commission, do not represent anything more than the developers’ flaws in process and siting.
“How do we get community renewable energy?” she said. “I think that’s the conversation that we need to have in the next legislative session. How do we change the whole structure of what we’re doing so that it is not developer-driven, that it is driven by a collaboration between the communities, the utilities, the developers and the people who live here?”
Thomas Hand, co-founder of MHG solar, said the company had been working on the plans in Manchester for two years.
“Vermont cannot hit its climate goals without having renewables be somewhat visible,” he said. “It’s not possible.”
Aesthetic concerns in Manchester
The commission’s decision to deny the Manchester project because of aesthetic impacts comes despite a review from an “independent aesthetics consultant,” brought on by the Public Service Department, which concluded that the project “would not have an undue adverse effect on aesthetics.”
The project is in the foreground of a view of Mount Equinox, recognized by the town of Manchester as a “significant natural feature.” While the commission wrote that this alone would not rule the project out, it’s a “factor that weighs against the project.”
Trees, which would have been planted to screen the view of the project, would not grow large enough to act as an effective shield until four to six years into the project, according to the order.
“We think that an average person observing the project from the homes on Richville Road would find this unscreened view offensive because of the project’s proximity to the road and homes and because of the Project’s scale in relation to its setting next to the entrance to a residential neighborhood,” it said.
According to the commission’s order, the project would have complied with every other category of potential concern: economy, historic sites, air and water purity, use of natural resources, public health and safety, waste disposal, transportation, and others. A fence would have had openings to allow wood turtles to migrate.
While the project is located on “a preferred site identified in a joint letter of support from the municipal legislative body and municipal and regional planning commissions,” according to the order, the commission also received “many public comments in opposition to the project,” mainly involving concerns about aesthetic impact and flooding.
The proposed field is near several rivers and floods frequently. The commission would have needed more information about flooding if it had not denied the project based on aesthetics, the order said.
Hand said that for Manchester to be able to hit its renewable energy goals, it will need around 40 projects similar in size to the denied Richville Road project.
“When people are like, ‘why don’t you put it somewhere else?’ My response is, ‘well fine, we can put it somewhere else. But tell me, where is it you would like me to put this one — and the next 40?’” Hand said.
Middlebury project approved
In Middlebury, certificate of public good in hand, Burlington-based Encore Renewable Energy is moving ahead with its plans to construct a 30-acre solar array that CEO Chad Farrell said should be completed sometime next year.
The commission’s hearing officer for the project initially recommended that the commission deny the certificate. Encore “failed to meet its evidentiary burden to demonstrate that the project would not have an undue adverse effect on the natural environment — specifically grassland bird breeding habitat” at the site of the project, the officer argued.
Bobolink and other grassland birds nest in farmers’ hayfields, and the young are often killed when those fields are mowed in the spring. Organizations such as the Bobolink Project compensate farmers for skipping the first cut, which gives the birds a chance to fledge.
Solar developers must prove that the areas they wish to develop do not infringe on “necessary wildlife habitat.” When such habitat is present, developers often engage with the Agency of Natural Resources to mitigate the impacts.
Statewide policies that require solar developers to survey for grassland birds are relatively new. Farrell said he did not realize the company needed to conduct a survey until July 2020, when the Agency of Natural Resources informed the developers. At that point, the company would have had to wait until the following spring to conduct the study.
Meanwhile, high-profile discussions about solar’s impact on grassland bird habitat have been occurring for years, Smith said.
Encore litigated the case last year, and Farrell said it was the first time the company has ever taken that approach.
“In 11 years of delivering solar projects in Vermont, we’ve never had to litigate an issue like this,” he said.
Farrell said there could be more clarity in the process and expectations for developers, and he’s planning to raise the issue with the Climate Council.
Representatives from Encore and the Agency of Natural Resources have since engaged in mediation, and Encore has agreed to an extensive mitigation plan that assumes any survey would have found bobolink present on the land.
The resulting plan requires Encore to conserve twice the number of grassland acres as the project will occupy, the commission’s order granting approval to the project said. It includes “direct and indirect project impacts” on the habitat, which Farrell said amounts to almost a three-to-one ratio.
Middlebury College is preserving land that will be hospitable for bobolinks and other grassland birds, adding to the project’s mitigation efforts. Without the college’s preservation efforts, Encore would not have been able to afford the agency’s required mitigation, the cost of which is a six-figure number, Farrell said.
The legislature, Farrell said, is “putting tremendous faith in all of us to work together to be able to deploy the clean energy that the state of Vermont is going to need to see over the next 10, 15, 20 years,” he said. “We feel like we’re doing our part, at risk.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect value for the size of the Middlebury solar project. It is a 5-megawatt project.
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