Local energy debate should include sustainable portfolio that balances conservation and development

Mar 6, 2013
Wilderness Society report takes a candid look at potential impacts and possible solutions

Wilderness Society report takes a candid look at potential impacts and possible solutions

Designing an energy system that all New Englanders can live with has been hotly debated in recent months. Meeting regional commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will require major investments in new energy infrastructure that will influence region’s energy system for decades to come.  Policymakers can find a balance between conservation and development and The Wilderness Society hopes a recent analysis can serve as a guide for their decision making.

Our report, Cumulative Landscape Impacts of Renewable Energy Alternatives for Northern New England takes a look at our renewable energy future, including its landscape impacts, and how we can start now to design an energy system that sustains the region’s beauty and quality of life.

“How we piece together our clean energy portfolio is at the heart of the battles we have all been hearing about,” said Ann Ingerson, a local economist with The Wilderness Society. “Decisions are being made today that will shape our region for generations to come.  We know we don’t have to choose between protecting our wild lands and advancing renewable energy if we take the time to do it right.”

Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire have made strong commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to reach that goal important decisions need to be made.  Local processes are underway that have the potential to move the north east away from polluting sources of energy and transition to a cleaner energy future. Where and how that is done is key.

In Vermont, for example, proposed legislation would give towns and regional planning entities more influence over wind project approvals. In addition, late in 2012 the Governor Shumlin established an Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission which will present a report to the governor by the end of April. 

In New Hampshire, the proposed Northern Pass Transmission line is being hotly debated and wind development on private lands is increasingly controversial. These developments have the potential to negatively impact our quality of life if we don’t get it right from the start.

In Maine, offshore and onshore wind development has been a hot topic of conversation. Our ridgelines are incredibly windy areas but we need to take the time to look at the places that should be off-limits as well as the places where development would have the least impact.

Reports and planning conversations should guide policy so that:

  • Local concerns about energy development impacts should carry due weight in energy siting decisions.
  • The full costs of new energy generation, including environmental costs, should be considered when balancing the benefits and costs of new energy projects. Downplaying these costs in the interest of rapid climate change action could seriously harm the ability of natural systems to adapt to changes that are already inevitable while acknowledging them can help focus development on the least harmful alternatives.
  • Transmission planning should take into consideration non-transmission alternatives like distributed generation and demand reduction, and minimize landscape impacts by avoiding sensitive lands.
  • Measures that reduce energy demand should be subsidized at least as heavily as new energy supply. Most renewable energy policies subsidize new energy supply.  When all the environmental and social costs and benefits are included, measures that reduce demand can be much more cost-effective.

“Better information about the long-term effects of renewable energy development can help both communities and state-level decision-makers plan responsibly and guide development to the least damaging sites and technologies” said Ingerson. “Effective climate policy calls for not only reducing emissions, but also protecting the wild places in our landscape that offer the best hope for natural systems to adapt under increasing climate stresses. These places also attract visitors and new residents who help support our rural communities.  We should ensure that all planning processes find a fair balance between land conservation and meeting our energy challenges.”

Ann Ingerson
(802) 586-9625