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.


Trees and Roads: Where, How & Why?

If you haven’t followed Front Porch Forum or attended the most recent Selectboard meetings, you may not be aware of property owner concerns about roadside tree removal along two contiguous areas:

Smith Hill, Dole Hill, Stony Brook Rd.  and   Winch Hill, Bull RunMessier Hill Rd.

About two-dozen residents and property owners attended the June 21st special Selectboard meeting with concerns about proposed tree removal along these roadsides. (See the Meeting Minutes June 14 & Minutes June 21  to catch up to speed.)  Word had gotten around that Northfield’s road foreman had made a no-bid, no-contract deal with a private company to remove trees on Smith Hill.  Many property owners had only received the information by word-of-mouth from neighbors.  Obviously, property owners weren’t happy – but they were very civil and made no ill-will against the town foreman.

Example of brush mower equipment

Ordinarily, roadside growth management isn’t a cause of public arousal — but this is because, ordinarily, roadside growth management is conducted on a regular basis, which means a generation of trees don’t have the opportunity to grow to full maturity along town roads and highways.  150 years ago almost all of Vermont’s landscape was denuded, but in our lifetimes, we’re used to tree-lined back roads.  Some folks appreciate the aesthetics of tree canopies covering roadsides; others find these same sections of roads to be a nuisance and potentially unsafe.

But before we get into the subject, there are three things which need to be mentioned.  I’m sure I can’t cover all the issues today, but let’s get started.


1. The bottom line is that, under municipal law,  the Town has the authority to remove trees in road right-of-ways.  However, procedures need to be followed.  We need clear views and open ditches.  We shouldn’t have dead trees or limbs falling in roadways.  The Town has responsibilities to maintain highways.  But the Town is required to communicate with landowners, ideally in a way that prevents controversy.

IMG_19532. Part of these procedures include adherence to state policies, programs, and practices.  Some policies may overlap, raising interesting questions.  For example, does tree removal right next to a river, brook or stream — within a town right of way — comply with the Clean Water Act or the Riparian Buffer law?

IMG_19573. Perhaps the best thing that can be done moving forward is for the Town to draft a comprehensive road and highway plan.  The new Clean Water Act has created many new changes and requirements related to road maintenance.  According to state documents, the development of a Road Stormwater Management Plan is under way.  The  process to develop the RSMP identifies, inventories and prioritizes sections of roads connected to surface waters,  prioritizes maintenance, and provides a multi-year timeline for implementation.  Why not work with the State to draft a local highway plan?  There are new rules to follow, and we may as well work alongside experts from an early point.

So back to the basic point:  Vermont statute authorizes a Town to remove trees.  But there are rules a Town has to follow:

§ 904. Brush removal
The selectmen of a town, if necessary, shall cause to be cut and burned, or removed from within the limits of the highways under their care, trees and bushes which obstruct the view of the highway ahead or that cause damage to the highway or that are objectionable from a material or scenic standpoint. Shade and fruit trees that have been set out or marked by the abutting landowners shall be preserved if the usefulness or safety of the highway is not impaired. Young trees standing at a proper distance from the roadbed and from each other, and banks and hedges of bushes that serve as a protection to the highway or add beauty to the roadside, shall be preserved. On State highways, the Secretary shall have the same authority as the selectmen. (Added 1985, No. 269 (Adj. Sess.), § 1.)

However, with only a word-of-mouth deal – a definite no-no in government — the tree removal company — Limlaw Pulpwood & Chipping — would have had a huge liability on their hands.  Statute 901 says:

901. Removal of roadside growth 

A person, other than the abutting landowner, shall not cut, trim, remove, or otherwise damage any grasses, shrubs, vines, or trees growing within the limits of a State or town highway, without first having obtained the consent of the Agency for State highways or the selectmen for town highways. (Added 1985, No. 269 (Adj. Sess.), § 1.)

Violations result in a penalty between $10 and $100 for each offense, under statute 902. Lacking proof of consent (a contract) would have been a huge legal liability.   

Another part of the process that didn’t fully take place recently was communication with landowners and the offering of felled trees, which are owned by the landowner, not the Town.  The word-of-mouth deal offered the tree removal service company trees in exchange for service.  The town can’t trade things it doesn’t own.  It can offer only the trees a property owner doesn’t want to keep.

This leads to the question of “free” service.  The word-of-mouth deal was described as “free” multiple times, but as we know, nothing in life is free.  Sure, taxpayers wouldn’t foot the bill.  The work would be subsidized by property owners.

This leads to another question:  what is the value of the contract?  The insinuation was that the value of exchange was pulpwood stumpage for “$300/hr” tree removal service.  (Apparently, roadside tree removal service costs as much as a New York attorney.)

But are Northfield’s back roads lined 100% with pulpwood?  Not at all.  There’s maple, pine, birch, black cherry, hemlock — all sorts of trees.  Some trees have value as lumber, some as firewood.  Even standing dead can have high-value.  Spalted maple slabs retail in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. 

Now, does a single property owner have enough trees to make it worth their while to cut, process and sell?  Maybe, maybe not.  But it’s fair to ask, “What is the sum value of trees some property owners — not all — contribute to offset the cost of the “free” contract?”

Does it matter?  Well, from a practical perspective, if the property owners aren’t going to use felled trees, maybe not.  But if property owners want to form a cooperative effort to maximize value for themselves, there’s no law stopping them.

No matter what property owners choose to do, we should at least acknowledge their contribution.  If you think about it, roadside property owners will be essentially paying a double tax — a property tax,  plus the value of trees the Town is giving away to pay for highway maintenance any resident may enjoy.