- Caleb Kenna
- A solar field in Sudbury
Ken Kennedy stood in the driveway of his vacation home on a hillside in Shaftsbury, dodging questions about the solar development planned for his sprawling property. It was a frigid afternoon in February, a few hours before the start of a public hearing on the much-disputed power project, and the retired Connecticut finance manager wasn't in a talkative mood.
He declined to discuss his deal with the developer, Freepoint Solar, which has a contract to buy his 191-acre property and plans to build one of the largest solar arrays in Vermont: 50,000 photovoltaic panels covering an area equivalent to about 65 football fields. Nor would he share his thoughts about what impact the array might have on the natural environment or whether the proposal had harmed relations with his neighbors.
The answer to that final question, however, soon became apparent.
Two owners of nearby properties, Kit Ausschnitt and Jesse McDougall, strolled into sight on Holy Smoke Road, a narrow country lane named for its stunning views of rolling hills north of Bennington. The pair, both vocal opponents of the 20-megawatt project, were giving a news photographer a tour of the area.
As the men passed the gated driveway, Kennedy shouted toward them. "Hey, Kit! Use your head and shut your mouth!"
Kennedy strode forward as if to confront Ausschnitt, a retired engineer and his nearest neighbor. Then he saw the phone in McDougall's hand and demanded the man put the device away.
McDougall, a stocky sheep farmer with a bushy beard, looked up and calmly asked Kennedy if he planned to take it from him. Kennedy backed down and retreated up his driveway while his neighbors regrouped in front of Ausschnitt's home across the way.
The men said they were stunned by the confrontation and saw it as further evidence of the passions that the proposed project was generating in the community.
"I don't want to see this become a torches-and-pitchforks kind of battle in town, but people are furious," McDougall said.
The exchange underscored the tensions that renewable energy projects generate in rural Vermont, disputes that may become more common as the state tries to accelerate its transition from fossil fuels to cleaner, in-state energy sources. Small towns are torn between embracing fields of solar panels as a tool to fight climate change or rejecting them as a blight on the landscape.
To meet its climate goals, the state is encouraging more people to heat their homes and power their vehicles with clean electricity instead of dirty fossil fuels. That transition is expected to cause the demand for electricity to surge in coming decades. Usage could double — from about 5,500 gigawatt hours today to nearly 11,000 gigawatt hours by 2040 — as tens of thousands of new electric vehicles hit the roads and electric heat pumps replace fossil fuel furnaces, according to an analysis conducted for the Vermont Climate Council.
Where will all that new electricity come from? Should Vermont, which already imports about two-thirds of its energy, rely on hydroelectric dams in Québec, future wind farms off the New England coast and whatever other sources are powering the regional grid?
Gov. Phil Scott thinks so. Scott, who has opposed industrial-scale wind towers on Vermont's ridgelines, said he expects that much of the state's additional power needs will be met through imports, including more Canadian hydropower that would be carried south from Québec through a proposed transmission line under Lake Champlain. The 1,000-megawatt line, known as TDI New England or the New England Clean Power Link, was proposed in 2013 and received all its permits but has not found a market for the power it would carry. Scott has said New England governors recently expressed renewed interest in the line. "We'll be looking more to the north of us," Scott said when asked about meeting the state's growing power needs.
Or should Vermont generate that additional power within its borders, by encouraging the development of more solar, wind and other renewable energy sources? Clean energy advocates contend that Vermont has lost ground as a green energy leader and become an environmental laggard, with climate goals that fall well behind those of surrounding states and a regulatory landscape that makes building wind, solar and hydro installations an uphill battle with an uncertain outcome.
"It's time that Vermont steps up and does our part in supporting new clean electricity here in New England and here in Vermont," James Moore, founder and copresident of solar developer SunCommon, said during a rally on the Statehouse steps last month.
State lawmakers are under pressure to pass a raft of climate-friendly legislation this session, including a clean heat standard that would create incentives for fossil fuel heating suppliers to reduce emissions, as well as a bill to conserve 30 percent of the state's land by 2030 and 50 percent by 2050.
But few debates in the Statehouse are as complex, consequential or politically charged as the one over whether Vermont needs fundamental reform of its renewable energy programs and policies.
Clean energy advocates such as Moore are pushing H.320, a bill that would set more challenging renewable energy goals. It would double the amount of clean, in-state energy Vermont utilities would be required to purchase by 2030 — and triple the requirement by 2035. Lawmakers say they will take up a version of the bill soon but expect debate of the complex issue to spill over to next year.
The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, meantime, began working on its own bill last week to update renewable energy requirements.
Lawmakers have been stuck for years between advocates who push for more in-state renewable energy generation and utilities that don't want to pay more than the going rate for wholesale electricity from the grid, said Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison), who chairs Natural Resources. He's calling for an independent analysis of the costs and benefits of more in-state electricity before the start of the next session to help lawmakers get "unstuck," he said.
A more aggressive renewable energy policy could have wide-ranging implications for the state's economy, job market, natural landscape and reputation for environmental leadership.
If Vermont continues to look elsewhere for the bulk of its power while blocking or slow-rolling renewable energy projects in its own backyard, Vermonters need to give up the pretense of being so environmentally virtuous, said Peter Sterling, president of Renewable Energy Vermont.
"We can say no to these projects," Sterling said, "but then we should call ourselves what we are — big fucking hypocrites."
Solar Disputes Flare
- Greg Nesbit
- Jesse McDougall (left) and Kit Ausschnitt in Shaftsbury
The spat between Kennedy and his neighbors Ausschnitt and McDougall was only a prelude to the disagreements that night, when more than 100 people turned out at the local elementary school gymnasium to lambaste the proposed solar array from every angle. It was an impressive turnout for the hilly community of 3,600 north of Bennington — and emblematic of the passionate opposition that has arisen in other towns, including Bennington, Manchester and Rutland Town, when major solar installations have been proposed.
One by one, attendees stepped up to the microphone. Speakers decried the potential loss of farmland. They fretted about the impact of new roads and fences on wildlife. They wondered about water runoff and the herbicides that would be used to kill weeds.
Opponents cast doubt on the efficiency of photovoltaic panels in northern climates, questioned whether the panels could ever be recycled and predicted the country road couldn't handle the truck traffic during construction.
They warned of the end of the "Holy Smoke" vista, plunging property values and a threat to rural living.
"It's an old lesson we never seem to learn," Ausschnitt, who moved to the state from Maine in 2021, declared. "You can't save the environment by destroying it."
In fact, the Town of Shaftsbury has no authority over whether the big solar array gets built. Residents can only provide input to the state Public Utility Commission, which will make the decision. On Town Meeting Day, opponents won a small victory when residents approved a nonbinding resolution that calls on the town to intervene in the case, which would enable it to submit arguments and evidence to the commission. The selectboard will decide whether to do so once the project is in final form, according to board chair Art Whitman. The developer is planning a public outreach event in May, he said.
Many residents attacked the project even as they professed strong support for solar power. "I'm deeply concerned about the environmental impact of something of this scale," Lisa Pezzulich, a local psychologist, said after noting that she has solar panels in her own backyard.
Ausschnitt is in a similarly awkward position of professing support for solar power even as he rails against one particular solar project. One of the first things the retired engineer did in 2021 after purchasing his 6,100-square-foot home was have solar installed. About two dozen photovoltaic panels cover the west-facing roof of his barn-style garage, complete with cupola.
Ausschnitt sees no inconsistency between his investment in solar and his opposition to solar panels that could sprout on fields across the road. A rooftop system such as his is appropriate because it's on a developed site, he said. Commercial buildings, parking lots and abandoned quarries are all examples of developed areas where solar makes sense, he said.
But allowing solar to blanket the state's hillsides is just foolish, Ausschnitt argued. "The main attraction of Vermont is its appearance. That's all it's got going for it," he said.
McDougall's property is farther from the proposed project, but he is no less disturbed by it. He argues that farmland can effectively combat climate change, and its capacity to do so needs to be protected and enhanced.
Pastures such as the ones a mile up the road from the project, where his 250 sheep graze, help sequester carbon in the soil, providing vital ecological benefits, he said. While he knows Kennedy is "just trying to get top dollar for his asset," McDougall said he's worried that large-scale solar development will put additional pressure on the state's already struggling farms.
"If this is a sign of what's to come, it might be the death knell for Vermont farms," he said.
- Kevin Mccallum ©️ Seven Days
- Shaftsbury residents lining up to speak about a solar project
Like many Vermont farmers, McDougall has had to diversify his income to make ends meet. He rents out two homes on his family's property to tourists and worries that the project — a small part of which would be visible on the hill across the valley — wouldn't fit the area's agrarian character. Parts of the solar array would be more visible to a handful of other neighbors, as well as traffic on Route 7.
"People come to the farm to see a biologically regenerative ecosystem, not an industrial power plant and substation," McDougall said.
He's called for a statewide moratorium on solar projects over five megawatts until new rules for siting solar can be established.
Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, supports the opponents. Her organization was instrumental in getting strict new rules on wind development. Smith, who lives off-grid in Danby, argues for the adoption of more aggressive conservation and energy-efficiency measures instead of — or in conjunction with — the transition to thoughtful, clean electricity sources.
Renewable energy development in Vermont is "ass-backwards," she contends, because it is driven by developers trying to make money instead of communities and utilities with incentives to find the most effective way to clean up the grid.
"This old-school build, build, build needs to stop," Smith said. "We need to be more strategic, because what we are doing is stupid."
Bitter disputes over solar have erupted in other towns, including Bennington, where developer and attorney Thomas Melone's lawsuits failed to overcome local and regulatory opposition to projects totaling four megawatts, and Manchester, where regulators rejected a 500-kilowatt proposal after agreeing that residents might find views of the project "offensive."
In Shaftsbury, despite the onslaught of opposition, project supporters urged their neighbors to look beyond the local impacts to the broader benefits of renewable energy. Reducing carbon emissions in the regional electricity sector is crucial, and a project of this size has great potential to help curb those emissions, said Bill Christian, a resident of North Bennington.
"I support this project because it will stop the burning of 270 million cubic feet of natural gas every year," Christian said.
The power would likely be purchased by an out-of-state utility that needs to improve its clean energy portfolio. That's what happened with the power from the last project of this size, the 20-megawatt Coolidge Solar project in Ludlow and Cavendish. The solar array, approved in 2017 and owned by Florida-based energy company NextEra Energy, sells the electricity to Connecticut. The project drew significant opposition because of its size, but the Public Service Board concluded that its positive economic impact and its cheap, clean power made it worthwhile.
Freepoint Solar, the renewable energy arm of the Stamford, Conn.-based global trading firm Freepoint Commodities, has plans in other Vermont communities, too. It is proposing a 20-megawatt project in Fair Haven and a 50-megawatt array in Panton. Those proposals, still in early development and in rural areas, have so far not drawn large-scale protests.
"There's been no outrage at all," Fair Haven Town Manager Joe Gunter said.
Freepoint officials told Shaftsbury neighbors the project would have little negative impact on its surroundings and that it could be altered in light of their feedback. The proposed array would provide inexpensive power to the New England grid that would help displace electricity from older, fossil fuel-fired power plants. The company has yet to contract with specific utilities, however, and is open to selling the energy to Vermont companies such as Green Mountain Power, said Reed Wills, chief operating officer for SunEast Development, which is managing the project for Freepoint Solar.
Some Shaftsbury residents took issue with the prospect of the power being sold to other states. What's the benefit to Shaftsbury, they asked, of hosting the array? (The project would generate an estimated $100,000 in taxes for the town.)
"There is plenty of land in Connecticut," resident PJ DeVito said. "This is our home. Don't let another state use us for their own gain!"
Doing Its Part?
- Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
- Sheep grazing at a solar array in Berlin
Just what is Vermont's responsibility to develop more renewable energy sources? To consider that question, it's necessary to understand where the state gets power now — and how it relies on an interconnected, complex regional grid.
About two-thirds of Vermont's power is imported, from sources such as hydroelectric dams in Québec and a nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. The remaining third is generated in-state, including from 17,000 solar installations — mostly on residential rooftops — a handful of large wind farms, two biomass power plants and dozens of hydroelectric dams.
The state became more dependent on imported electricity after the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station shut down in 2014. Still, by one measure, 64 percent of Vermont's power is renewable.
How much and what kind of power the state imports changes dramatically by the season, and that variability needs to be taken into account in any discussion about integrating more renewables, TJ Poor, director of the Department of Public Services's Efficiency & Energy Resources Division, explained.
Consider a sunny, windy day in May. People have turned off their heat and aren't using air conditioning. Solar panels soak up the sun's rays for more hours than in winter, and rivers swollen by spring runoff enable hydro projects to crank at full capacity. On days such as these, much of the electricity Vermont consumes is generated in-state.
In the dead of winter, however, furnaces and heat pumps blast while solar panels under gray skies on shorter days generate far less electricity. Vermonters stay warm thanks largely to power from Hydro-Québec, as well as nuclear and fossil fuel plants in other New England states.
This seasonal variability is important in determining what kind of and how much additional renewable energy the state should encourage, Poor said. The Department of Public Service has undertaken a series of webinars to help people better understand renewables, incentives and how the grid works. Poor said he hopes the effort lays a foundation for a thoughtful public dialogue that would result in proposed reforms to state energy policies next legislative session.
"Do we need more solar, really?" Poor asked.
Absolutely, and more wind, too, said David Blittersdorf, owner of Williston-based AllEarth Renewables.
"If we're going to double our electric supply, we have to build a hell of a lot more renewables," Blittersdorf said.
- Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
- A solar array in Central Vermont
But the prospect of additional wind power in Vermont is effectively dead. No industrial-scale wind turbines have been built since the outcry that occurred before existing projects — including Kingdom Community Wind in Lowell, Deerfield Wind in Readsboro and Searsburg, and the smaller Georgia Mountain Community Wind in Milton and Georgia — were permitted more than a decade ago. Blittersdorf, who developed and later sold the Georgia Mountain project, said current restrictions on wind developments, including noise limits, are onerous and need to be reformed because wind, which blows at night, complements solar.
With the move away from wind power, renewable energy companies have focused on solar in Vermont, but even there, the pace of development has slowed. A peak of 81 megawatts of new solar was installed in the state in 2016. In 2022, the total was 32 megawatts, according to the Department of Public Service.
That's largely due to limits on which sites qualify for state incentive payments and reductions in the price paid for the power, Poor said. Solar developers say it's also because there's an ever-growing list of places that are effectively off-limits to solar development.
"If your criteria is, 'You can't see it, it can't be on ag land, and you can't cut down trees,' that's everything," Thomas Hand of the Manchester Center-based MHG Solar said. "There is nothing left."
Still, the state remains on track to meet its goal for 75 percent renewable energy consumption by 2032, with 10 percent of that from renewables in Vermont.
Now, advocates argue that the goal, set in 2015 with the passage of the Renewable Energy Standard, is outdated and too modest. A report last month from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says only "deep, rapid, and sustained reductions" in fossil fuel emissions this decade can limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as called for in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Vermont's 2022 Comprehensive Energy Plan recommends "adjustments" to the state's renewable energy policies following public hearings.
Renewable Energy Vermont says the state's goal for new renewable energy is the weakest in the Northeast. Rhode Island, which expects to benefit from new offshore wind farms, calls for getting 98 percent of its energy from new renewable sources by 2035. Maine is shooting for 50 percent, Massachusetts and Connecticut 40 percent, and New Hampshire 15 percent, according to the trade group.
In Vermont, renewable energy projects under five megawatts developed since 2015 count toward the goal of 10 percent of the state's renewable power coming from inside the state. The state relies heavily on older renewables when calculating how much of its overall portfolio is clean — another issue advocates say needs reform.
They want Vermont utilities to rely less on old renewable energy sources — defined as pre-2010 in H.320 — to meet more aggressive renewability goals. The bill would require utilities to get 100 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2030, but 60 percent of that would have to come from new renewable sources by 2035.
Utilities could still purchase cheap power from decades-old Hydro-Québec dams, but there would be a limit on how much that power could count toward the renewability requirements of a new energy standard.
- Kevin Mccallum ©️ Seven Days
- James Moore, founder and copresident of solar developer SunCommon
The changes are meant to better align Vermont's energy policies with those of surrounding states, prevent the state from resting on its laurels and force utilities to invest more heavily in new renewables, Moore said.
"I think everybody is recognizing there is a problem here," Moore said. "Vermont is not doing its share, and that needs to change."
June Tierney chafed at the critique that Vermont isn't developing enough renewable energy sources. The commissioner of the Department of Public Service, which advocates for ratepayers before the Public Utility Commission, noted that the vast majority of solar projects are granted permits by the commission.
The pace of solar development in the state "reflects the balance we have struck both as a society and as a government," she said. That rate, she said, given the state's ready access to hydro and reliance on the regional power grid, is "appropriate for the transition we are making."
"Vermont is not going to reach its renewable energy goals on the backs of in-state generation alone," she said.
The existing 10 percent in-state requirement will result in more local renewables being developed as electricity use increases, Poor said. But it's worth asking whether solar, given its intermittency, is the best source to meet the state's future power needs, he added — solar alone isn't going to run all those tens of thousands of electric heat pumps envisioned to keep Vermonters warm on dark winter nights. It's also vital that the state keep rates for consumers as low as possible to make switching to EVs and heat pumps economical, he said.
When Louis Porter, general manager of the Washington Electric Cooperative, hears the drumbeat for more renewables, he worries about rates. Utilities such as his that get much of their power from older renewable sources — such as local hydro and landfill gas from Coventry — would have to develop or purchase new renewable power at great expense, he said.
The rate hikes that would result would be counterproductive because they would impede the transition to using electricity for heating and transportation, he noted.
"Of course, energy developers, like all businesses, would like a government mandate that requires purchase of their products," Porter said. "But when those projects are replacing electricity, which is already renewable and low-carbon, it is not only self-serving but indefensible."
Farm to Cables
- Kevin Mccallum ©️ Seven Days
- Washington dairy farmer Jennifer Lambert
Policy decisions about solar have direct impacts on people such as Jennifer Lambert and her husband, Jesse, who run a small dairy. They're facing soaring feed costs that threaten the viability of their operation, so they lease as much land as they can to grow hay for their hungry herd of 140 Holsteins.
But they've struggled to find enough acreage close to their farm, on an isolated dirt road between Graniteville and Washington. They've consequently had to go to considerable effort and expense to farm land more than 12 miles away.
So when a 40-acre field on nearby Lowery Road in Barre Town came on the market, Lambert inquired about leasing or buying it. But the owner is working with a solar developer with plans for a five-megawatt array on the land.
The amount of money solar developers are dangling in front of rural property owners far exceeds what they can get from leasing or selling it to farmers, Lambert said. She said they typically pay $50 an acre per year.
"We can't compete with what this solar company has offered him," she said.
Lambert is no stranger to the solar industry. She has a 150-kilowatt system on her heifer barn meant to offset the farm's milking machines and other power needs. She and her husband also owned a field behind the Booth Bros. milk plant in Barre that they leased to a solar developer, diversifying their income for a time, she said.
While she sees the value solar can provide to farmers in certain circumstances, she worries that the industry's growth will come at the expense of farmers.
Seth Gardner, owner of McKnight Farm in East Montpelier, agrees that solar power represents a conundrum for many farmers. He installed a 100-kilowatt system on his organic dairy a decade ago. Then-governor Peter Shumlin even visited the farm to promote such projects.
But Gardner hates to see solar becoming yet another source of competition for agricultural land, even if struggling farmers might benefit from the extra income. Such projects only make sense on marginal land, he said. His array, for example, is on a buffer zone required for his organic certification.
"Should we sacrifice our best ag land for renewable energy? I don't think so. I don't like the thought of that," he said.
So many small farms are failing, however, that repurposing some of those fields for solar makes a lot of sense, according to Earl Morrison, plant manager at Morrison Custom Feeds in Barnet. For years, larger dairies have been acquiring cows from smaller ones that are leaving the business, and they often can't make use of their smaller fields, leaving them fallow.
"There's going to be a lot of vacant land and 10- and 20-acre fields that aren't going to have any use as agriculture," Morrison said.
He doesn't see any problem with such properties hosting solar. His family was able to put a 500-kilowatt array on a former hayfield to reduce costs at their feed mill on the Connecticut River. The project by Norwich Solar helps defray what had been a $10,000 monthly power bill, he said.
While he recognizes the value of solar and wishes the state made it less onerous to develop, Morrison admits he's conflicted about the "ugly" large-scale solar projects he sees in Maine becoming more common in Vermont. "It's a tough topic, for sure. There's a lot of emotion around it," he said.
But agriculture and solar don't have to be an either-or proposition, said Chad Farrell, chief executive officer of Burlington-based Encore Renewable Energy. A growing body of evidence shows farming and solar can coexist, he said. "Agrovoltaics" — using land around solar panels for raising shade-loving crops, grazing sheep or growing pollinator-friendly ground cover — is becoming increasingly important as pressure on farmland mounts, Farrell said.
"It's not energy or food," Farrell said. "It's energy and food."
Those who claim solar should just stick to already developed properties, such as rooftops or parking lots, need to realize that those projects often don't pencil out.
After aesthetics concerns, the impact on agriculture is one of the most common objections to large solar projects in Vermont, Sterling said. But he views the conflict as overblown and the alleged loss of ag land a red herring. For one thing, the land isn't being "lost" for agriculture, because the panels, posts and wiring can be removed and the land can be tilled in the future, he said.
In addition, even if the in-state goals were upped as proposed to 20 percent by 2030, Renewable Energy Vermont estimates the goal could be met using just 2,300 acres of land. In a state with an estimated 1 million acres of agricultural land, that represents just three-tenths of 1 percent.
"Is finding places to get hay the thing really hurting dairy farmers?" Sterling said. "They have 110 other problems."
Jim Merriam, Norwich Solar's chief executive officer, said concern about farmland is really a symptom of a deeper issue — a disconnect Vermonters have between the power they use and where it is generated.
Vermont, which produces the least power of any state in the nation, has gotten used to not seeing where its power comes from, Merriam said. Now people are starting to see "a tiny fraction of our electricity being produced," he said.
The fights over such projects are becoming more divisive in part because of the erosion of public discourse and trust in government nationally, Merriam said. But it's also due to the unfortunate lack of political consensus about how to move forward.
"Instead of having this conversation at the state level and leadership to guide us through these priorities, we're just pitting neighbor against neighbor," he said, "and it's not healthy."