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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024

Letter to the Editor

As a geology professor at Middlebury College, I am proud to be involved with the “Energy2028” initiative, which seeks to switch entirely to renewable energy and reduce overall energy consumption at the college by 25%. A major part of reaching 100% renewable energy is the 5 MW solar array being developed by Encore Renewables on ~28 acres of college land located between South Street Extension and Route 30. The originally proposed site was nearly perfect, situated in a broad valley about a half mile southwest of the road. With mature trees to the east and west, the vast tract of steel and silicon would have been well hidden from all angles. I was pleased with the initial site when I visited it two months ago. Unfortunately, subsequent engineering tests revealed that the area contains shallow bedrock and some wetlands that would require additional engineering work, thus driving up the cost of the project. As a result, Encore is now seeking to move the project eastward, to a site with zero natural shielding and entirely unobstructed sightlines from South Street Extension. Thus our beloved Energy2028 has arrived at what is becoming, for environmentalists, an all-too-familiar conflict — pitting Vermont’s stunning natural aesthetic against the footprint of renewable energy that we so desperately need to fight climate change.

In my opinion, the new site adjacent to South Street Extension is NOT appropriate for a 28-acre solar array. When you drive, run or bike around the area, the landscape takes your breath away. Broad fields stretch to the horizon, dotted with trees and marsh grasses glowing gold under the low sun of a November afternoon. This working agricultural landscape is a nearly 200 year-old historic relic; too large to fit in the Sheldon Museum alongside the linens and rocking chairs, but worthy of preservation nonetheless. Until now these lands have been preserved due to Middlebury College’s remarkable legacy of land stewardship, which began with the vision of Joseph Battell. Battell understood the aesthetic value of landscapes and was not afraid to put real money behind them as he amassed and protected land in the late 1800s before donating vast tracts to the college. He famously said: Some folks pay $10,000 for a painting and hang it on the wall where their friends can see it, while I buy a whole mountain for that much money and it is hung up by nature where everybody can see it and it is infinitely more handsome than any picture ever painted.A desire to preserve beautiful landscapes can be more than NIMBYism; instead, it is a recognition that natural aesthetic beauty has value and is worth preserving. 

I thus urge the college and town to use their considerable leverage and persuade Encore renewables to build either on the originally proposed site, or a comparably shielded one. They should ask Encore for a detailed financial analysis showing the difference in cost between the two sites. Even a cost well into the six figures would be a relatively small amount of money when amortized over the minimum 25-year lifespan of this multi-million dollar solar array. Although the 28 acres in question could theoretically be returned to pasture in 25 years after the first set of solar panels wears out, it seems more likely that we are constructing a permanent power station that will take one more slice of aesthetic beauty away from our children and grandchildren. Without fighting for responsible land planning, the beautiful landscape that we all value will evolve slowly towards the sprawling suburban development that characterizes other parts of the state and country. Instead, let us accept the extra cost to do this project right and create a legacy (and landscape!) we can be proud of. I am guessing Joseph Battell would consider it money well spent.

Will Amidon is a geology professor at Middlebury.