Albright: Stronger Local Voices

Apr 29, 2016

When I was a reporter covering the Northeast Kingdom and the Upper Valley, I spent countless evenings in small towns listening to people wrangle about whether or where to erect wind turbines or solar arrays.

I’ve rarely heard anyone say they love buying dirty energy, from, say, coal-fired plants or foreign oil cartels.
Vermonters seem to agree, for the most part, that we have to find alternative sources of electricity. But when a wind or solar power developer sets up a power point projector in a chilly grange hall, or when the Public Service Board drops the gavel on a hearing in an elementary school cafeteria, tension can build quickly between corporate presenters and neighbors of the proposed project who suspect, either rightly or wrongly, that the folks in suits enjoy an unfair advantage.

Too many rural residents I've interviewed feel nearly powerless to shape what happens on the land they use for recreation and, in some cases, to make a living. Many opponents to wind energy, for example, take issue not only with the prospect of industrial turbines rising on a pristine ridge, but also with a decision-making system they consider unfair – perhaps even rigged against them. When people walk into a public meeting feeling more like David than Goliath, they don’t always listen well or reason clearly, and that can deepen divides, rather than build bridges to consensus.

The Public Service Board, which is appointed by the governor, not elected, currently has broad authority to approve or reject renewable energy project plans. The bill currently under consideration by the legislature would not, as I understand it, weaken that body, but it would require the Board to take town plans into account to a greater degree.

Yes, we do have to avoid a NIMBY mentality if we want Vermont to wean itself from fossil fuels. And yes, it’s not always easy to determine what a community really wants, because even within towns, there are widely diverging opinions - about everything. But under current law, if a town creates reasonable zoning guidelines, or holds a referendum on an energy project, the renewable energy developer and the PSB can decide how much or how little weight to assign to those plans or votes.

If we strengthen local voices, the climate for conversation might get a lot better. I’ve seen at Vermont’s town meetings that when people believe they’re truly enfranchised, they generally show respect for people who may not share their views.