A few years ago Gov. Peter Shumlin set an ambitious goal of using renewable energy to meet 90 percent of the state's energy needs by 2050.
"If more states would do what Vermont is doing, getting off our addiction to oil, moving to renewables, our kids and our grandkids would live in a more prosperous planet," Shumlin said in July 2014.
Today, more and more schools, municipalities, hospitals and others are jumping on the solar bandwagon to save money – in many cases thousands of dollars per year that could be redirected to provide more services or cut tax bills.
The state's first large solar farm went up in Hinesburg in 2009, and since then the projects have proliferated, reports WCAX-TV. The Public Service Board has received a total of 169 applications for large arrays over 145 kW – 83 in the last year alone. They've approved about 86 percent of them.
However, some are now asking if the state is sacrificing its aesthetic appeal and the rights of the towns and property owners where these solar farms are located. Where there were once rolling green fields and distant mountain views, people now see acres and acres of shiny photovoltaic panels. Critics say some developers have over-stepped the lines of good land-use planning, and that the Public Service Board process for siting these projects is broken.
It's left many to question if the state's separate-track approval process for energy projects – known as Section 248 – is broken, especially when it comes to this new model of solar sprawl, WCAX reports.
People wonder if it makes sense to destroy the environment in order to save it. And what will this do to the state's tourism industry if visitors are turned off by the rows of gleaming solar arrays instead of the lush greenness for which the state is famous?
Solar Industry officials admit some companies have made poor siting decisions, but that it's a small bump in the road. "Like any industry that's growing, you're going to have a few folks that say, 'Oops, you know what...' In a few years they'll admit, maybe that wasn't such a good idea – we learned some lessons. But every industry goes through that as you ramp up," David Blittersdorf, the CEO of All Earth Renewables, told WCAX.
Some would argue that the backlash over solar farms is merely a case of NIMBYism at its worst.
People in Vermont want energy, but it's become increasingly apparent that they don't want the facilities necessary to produce that energy. They don't want fossil fuel generating plants, they don't want nuclear, they don't want any more dams, they don't want wind and now they don't want solar. But they do want the lights to go on when they flip the switch. We want energy but we want the generating of it to foul someone else's air, land and view.
It seems to us that looking at a coal or nuclear plant is more hideous than a field of solar panels. And as the technology improves, the footprint of much of these installations will decrease and at the end of their useful life the land can be reclaimed fairly quickly and easily, and it won't take 100 years to do it.
Still, the critics may have a point in saying that the state is moving too fast without giving careful thought to the consequences of fast-track siting and approval of these large solar farms.
So does that mean we have to choose between renewable energy and the spectacular views we all love?
Not necessarily. What if solar were beautiful?
That's the question asked by Sistine Solar, a new start-up founded by MIT graduates. This company, which has creative designers as well as photovoltaic engineers, is developing game-changing solar panels that blend in with their surroundings. Rooftop panels blend seemlessly into the rest of the roof – regardless of color or type of shingle – and solar canopies can be designed with colorful patterns or even a company logo.
"We at Sistine Solar are on a mission to showcase the innate beauty of solar energy through stunning design, captivating the world's imagination and ushering in the era of clean energy," the company says on its website.
As the company notes, the sun produces enough energy in just one hour to power the world for an entire year. Yet, solar makes up less than 1 percent of our global energy production. Hopefully that will change with innovations, in both form and function, from companies like Sistine.