The True Cost of Electricity

The ongoing discussion about the proposed solar farm on Cheney field seems to be coming to a head with public sentiment firmly opposed.

As a water and electric ratepayer, I support the construction of a commercial-scale solar farm.  The business side is straightforward.  Northfield Electric Department is required to meet Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard.  If we oppose development of renewable energy in Northfield, NED will eventually pay fines and purchase Renewable Energy Credits, raising electric bills for NED customers.  A local solar farm would be the first renewable energy facility completely owned by NED, and it’s what we need to do.

An alternative to Cheney Farm?  If residents are opposed to one solution, we should take responsibility in finding another, feasible, apples-to-apples solution.  The Wellfield lies on a floodplain — so that’s not going to work.  Maybe we can use our parks at Memorial Field and Northfield Falls.  (Yea, not happening.)  Perhaps we can find 5 acres of rooftops to generate an equivalent 1.2 MW of electricity — but that’s a lot of rooftops, a lot of insurance liability, and a lot of public-private partnerships.  Who knows, maybe it can work.  It won’t work as efficiently as a single-site solar farm.  But a conversation about an alternative is much better than just saying, “We don’t want it here.”

We need to become responsible for our own renewable energy and bear the true costs of electricity.  It’s really easy to flick a light switch without appreciating immense environmental damage done elsewhere.  But let’s be clear:  when you flick a switch, someone pays the environmental price.

For example, a significant percentage of your electricity comes from Hydro-Quebec.  The James Bay Project is a series of dams impacting rivers, people, and natural habitats across an area the size of New York State.  And this is just one of Hydro-Quebec’s projects.

The environmental impact we offset to others by purchasing Canadian hydro is massive.  In northern Quebec, these costs have included, besides what you might ordinarily imagine,  the drowning of 7,100 to 22,000 caribou and decades of continuous political struggles for the James Bay Cree and Inuit peoples to protect their land and way of life.

In 1984, Hydro-Quebec released 1500 cubic meters of water per second from a dam upstream of an annual caribou migration path.  7,100 carcasses were counted, with an estimate of total losses between 10,000 and 22,000.  Quoting the New York Times:

The accident was called ‘‘a major environmental catastrophe” by the Audubon Society. Leaders of the Inuit, or Eskimos, termed the event ”an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportions.” The animals were trying to cross the Caniapiscau and Koksoak Rivers about 60 miles upriver from Kuujjiaq, a town on Ungava Bay.  The caribous, which were making an annual migration, were swept over waterfalls or carried away in the rapids of the two swollen rivers.  Witnesses said carcasses were piled five or six deep in some places on the river banks. 

This isn’t a sad anecdote from long-forgotten history.  It’s an ongoing reality directly related to electricity consumption.  In April of this year, Hydro-Quebec proposed releasing 750 cubic meters of water per second, which would raise river levels 12 inches, causing renewed concerns about what happened in 1984, along with questions about immediate impacts to fishing, hunting, and gathering.  As recently as May, Hydro-Quebec was still mulling the decision, reportedly saying,that, “if it doesn’t spill the excess water in the reservoir, it could result in a big, uncontrolled release.”

This is just one dam of many massive, massive dams in Northern Quebec.  Native and non-native people alike fight to preserve and protect some of the most pristine environments on the planet.  We need to think about this when we turn on our lights.  

I support a commercial-scale solar farm because it seems that, too often, Vermont wants to pass the buck on energy production responsibility.  We’re masters at energy efficiency — and we’re pretty good at energy hypocrisy, too.  See the Times Argus’ “State of renewables not what you might think:

“What is extremely troubling to me as a Vermonter whose family roots are deep in this state is that we’ve had a lack of transparency and a big focus on the perception of Vermont being green when it comes to renewables, without that largely being the case in reality,” said Kevin Jones, director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School and an author of the report.

and VTDigger’s Vermont not meeting renewable energy goals, report says.”

The report suggests that despite the state’s progress on renewable electricity, in-state production of renewable electricity is not “flourishing in Vermont,” as shown in a Public Utility Commission report last year. The majority of Vermont’s renewable electricity comes from imported hydropower rather than from in-state renewables, according to the Energy Action Network report.

When I think about opposition to the solar farm on Cheney Field, I can’t help but wonder:  What sacrifice has Northfield  made?  How are we part of a renewable energy solution?

On Sunday I took a walk up to Cheney Field and imagined what a solar farm would look like there.  Cheney Field can be seen only from the highest residences on Dole Hill, Tracy Hill, and a short section of West Hill.  A solar farm there would not disturb anyone’s viewshed.  Neither would it imperil wildlife — at least, not any more so than the multitude of single-family homes popping up like rural sprawl in our woods and fields.  It would not contaminate our water supply, which is stored in two quarter-million gallon concrete tanks.  It would not bar people from hiking, biking, or running on the trail which runs through it.  As I looked around, I could see a solar farm which, even one year after its construction, very few people would worry about.  In that sense, I could accept Cheney Field as the true cost of electricity in Northfield.

I say all of this knowing how many friends disagree with me.  I’ve seen the petitions.  Many of you are more than neighbors.  You are people I admire, love and respect.  Over the last few weeks our face-to-face conversations have been civil, understanding, genuine.  This is the part I appreciate most about Northfield.   The true cost of friendship is the effort we put forward in being honest with each other.


2 thoughts on “The True Cost of Electricity”

  1. Here, here Nate – I completely agree with you! Unfortunately we missed the town meeting because we are traveling, so I very much appreciate your “updates”.
    I would hope that various options are all put on the table and publicized well. Whats up with the field next to Darn Tough? Is that privately owned? Thanks again, love reading these!


  2. Hi Nate, I was browsing the Internet for mention of the thousands of caribou that drowned due to the incompetence of government bureaucrats when they released all that water without understanding anything about how nature works in Canada — or on the planet for that matter. Good article. Thanks for writing it. I’m from Canada and I have plenty of concerns for the country and the planet. Will humanity ever get it right? I honestly don’t know.


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