A Birds-Eye View of Renewable Energy Siting

Middlebury Project is a Case Study in Balancing Solar and Bird Habitat

The hard work of environmental advocates, governments and renewable energy developers to support a shift from carbon-emitting fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy has been paying off. Over the past ten to fifteen years, the number of solar panel installations in the US has grown exponentially, from 849 installations in 2010 to 23,565 installations in 2021. The popularity of solar panels has been high in Vermont, which currently hosts 9,643 installations and 62 solar companies.

There are clear benefits to the rise of the solar industry, most notably the dramatically smaller carbon footprint of producing solar energy compared to burning fossil fuels. At the same time, solar arrays can have negative localized impact if, for instance, the arrays are sited on sensitive ecosystems like wetlands, or result in forest clearing. Audubon Vermont has long taken the position that climate change is a major threat to birds and biodiversity, that the most important action we can take to address climate change is to shift away from the use of fossil fuels, and that properly sited renewable energy solutions are critical to achieving this goal. This approach is, however, easy to say in theory, and harder to apply in practice.

As a student at Middlebury College, I had the opportunity to observe an example of the sometimes complicated trade-off between solar energy and local environmental impact. This example arose a year ago when state and federal officials, Middlebury College, Green Mountain Power (GMP), and Encore Renewables Energy gathered in the town of Middlebury to announce the establishment of a five-megawatt solar energy project along South Street Extension, just south of the Middlebury College campus.  Excitement was in the air, with hopes that the new project would supply over a third of the College's electricity use and push it closer to its goal of achieving 100% renewable energy by 2028. Behind the scenes, however, lay months of hard work and discussions over the location of the project and its impacts on wild birds and wetlands. 

A Bit of Background:

The original plan was to build the site on a small ledge hill west of the current location. Due, however, to the old location's visibility from Cornwall and its high concentration of ledge rock-- which is considerably more expensive to develop than clayplain (the primary material in the current site's geological makeup) -- Encore Renewables decided to move to a new location.

Currently, the site is set to be built by Encore Renewable Energy about two miles from the Middlebury campus. The site will encompass thirty acres of college-owned land and include approximately 29,000 panels mounted on single-axis trackers. This design was chosen to maximize the amount of sunlight the site will get in a day, as the single-axis trackers will allow the panels to change their angle to follow the course of the sun from east to west every day. The site is located near the northern edge of the Middlebury Swamp and has been used to produce hay for many years.  

Challenges Arise:

The change of site plans brought pushback from Middlebury's community and raised concerns regarding the ecological makeup of the new location. One of the sources of concern came from Vermont's Agency of Natural Resources. Agency officials sought to apply its Guidance for the Review & Mitigation of Impacts to Grassland Bird Habitat, noting that the project's siting would exacerbate pressures on the state's grassland bird populations, already in decline for a variety of reasons including loss of habitat. In response, Encore Renewables argued that “the site is already the subject of unregulated and intensive agricultural use” and therefore, that, the addition of a solar site would not impact grassland bird habitat. In order to ensure the protection of bird habitat, however, the Agency of Natural Resources sought to require the solar developer to conduct a field-specific study of the project and analyze the number of grassland birds that are using the land as a breeding ground. Ultimately, the dispute was resolved following an agreement among Encore, Middlebury College and the Agency of Natural Resources that called on the College to dedicate ninety-five acres of its land as a habitat for bobolinks and grassland birds.  

Even with this mitigation effort, some remain wary about the solar panel site and its potentially harmful effect on surrounding neighborhoods and ecosystems. For instance, during a meeting before Middlebury’s Environmental Council in November of 2021 that I attended, some professors expressed concerns. They questioned whether Encore Renewables' knowledge of the site's history and their ability to work hand in hand with the local hydrology of the location would be sufficient to align local conservation and biodiversity goals.

At the same time, the controversy raised questions for some about Vermont state government’s support for growing the amount of solar power generated in the state as called for in the state’s climate goals.  Encore’s CEO, Chad Farrell, noted that the approval system needs “more clarity in the process and expectations for [solar] developers.” Thus, while all parties agree that renewable energy is crucial to responding to climate change, there are still arguments over the siting and approval process, and regarding appropriate conditions and requirements that lands must meet in order to be considered for solar site development. 

What can we do?

Ultimately, the Middlebury solar site will be built this spring, making a positive contribution to Middlebury College’s goal to reduce its carbon footprint, along with the dedication of up to 95 acres of the College’s land to be managed as habitat for bobolinks and other grassland birds. This case serves also, however, as a good example of the complexities of solar sites, which will only increase during our push to meet climate goals through renewable energy expansion. Much is at stake in the outcomes of these planning debates, including climate change, biodiversity, as well as community well-being and trust.

Audubon Vermont members can have your voice heard in the decision-making process. Here are some steps you can take:

  1. Whenever a local project is proposed, make sure to attend local meetings and presentations to get to know more details.
  2. Get involved in your community’s land-use planning efforts by contacting your regional planning commission (you can learn more the regional planning process and Act 174 by clicking here) and meeting with local leaders.
  3. Read local news articles about the emerging science related to climate change as well as bird population trends (Audubon’s Survival by Degrees and Bird Migration Explorer webpages are good resources) and stay up-to-date with your community's renewable energy and other land development plans.
  4. Subscribe to Audubon Vermont’s newsletter or check our website for updates to get the latest information on events.

Though solar paneling and renewable energy are making important strides toward limiting harm to wildlife and bird habitats, it is important to remain mindful of the area and ecosystem in which they are being built. Renewable energy has clear and substantial benefits. Ensuring that its net environmental effect is positive requires careful and proactive planning and community engagement. Doing so is vital for birds and the places birds, and people, need to thrive.   

How you can help, right now