My Turn: Taking the long view

  • AP FILE PHOTO/SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN

Published: 2/21/2021 7:40:47 AM

How do we value our scenic vistas, the energy we use, and planetary survival?

    I live downtown in the village of Shelburne Falls, a scenic former mill town nestled in the Deerfield river valley and surrounded by a bowl of wooded hills. One of my neighbors bought a house on Bray Mountain, which forms our western ridge, and decided to clear some trees.

I can’t blame them for wanting to improve their view, one of the most scenic in Massachusetts. But now when I lift my gaze I see a clearing on the hilltop that looks like a hipster’s soul patch shaved into the upturned chin of what was an unbroken expanse of forested ridgeline. Their singular view on high is now also a diminished scenic view for me and my hundreds of neighbors down below. Gazing in both directions, we viewers are part of the view.

My neighbors are within their rights to take down a few trees. I’ve done the same to eliminate shading on my solar panels. If pressed, they could claim that 100 years ago the entire hillside of Bray Mountain was cleared off, with sheep and cattle grazing in fenced pastures.

Which view is the “right” scenic view? The working farms of yesteryear, the pristine looking (but twice logged) forests grown over them, or the re-opened checkerboard landscapes of exurbanizing view-seekers building homes into the forest? This complex picture gains another layer when new energy systems are added to the view-shed. A few examples:

My neighbors in rural Shelburne — glass artist Josh Simpson and retired astronaut Cady Coleman — put up a large solar array in their back field to provide clean power for their electricity-hungry glass blowing studio, but ran into opposition from abutters concerned about the esthetics of solar panels. Green fields or greener art?

And up the road in Northfield, petitioners are gathering signatures to oppose Planning Board approval of three large-scale solar installations on the L’Etoiles’ Four Star Farm, which will cover some 40 of the farm’s 250 acres with 10.5 megawatts worth of solar panels raised up ten feet to allow for a cattle grazing operation on the grassland underneath.

How should we view such a solar-paneled farmscape? As industrial blight or as part of a shift to new kinds of agro-energy enterprise? Midwestern farmscapes from Texas to North Dakota are now filled with windmills rising over corn and soybeans.

Consider our own energy transition under way in the Pioneer Valley. We’ve closed nuclear plants in Rowe (185 megawatts) and Vermont Yankee (650 mw). The Mount Tom coal-fired power station in Holyoke (145 mw) closed in 2014. We stopped the Kinder Morgan gas pipeline from carving through our farms. Protests successfully blocked biomass plants in Russell and Greenfield, and are underway to halt a trash-to-energy plant in Springfield. Many towns, including Shelburne, have passed bylaws limiting land-based windmills.

What affordable energy resource remains to power our homes, cars and businesses? Solar.

Globally, we have maybe 10 years to shift decisively away from fossil fuels and 30 years to reach net zero carbon emissions in order to avert the worst effects of climate change. By 2050, the solar panels proposed at Four Star Farms will be reaching the end of their rated life span. Perhaps by then we will have developed even cleaner forms of energy and can recycle the panels and return the land to crops. The L’Etoiles’ dual-use farm makes that possible.

No energy technology comes without cost, including solar. But I’ll take the downsides of solar over nuclear waste any day, over coal mining, smoke and ash, over gas and oil. I too prefer solar on homes, businesses and parking lots more than on farm fields. But we will need large-scale commercial systems to turn the climate change corner in time. It would require 142,000 homes like mine, with its little 7kw solar array, to replace the 1,000 megawatts of coal and nuclear energy we have closed in the last few decades. That’s 50% more housing units than exist in all of Franklin and Hampshire counties.

When I look at the views across our farms and forests, I am adjusting my perspective to include myself in the picture. My eye is also on that 30-year horizon. The glint of solar panels over fields and rooftops gives me some small hope that my grandchildren will still have a landscape — not just to look at, but one in which crops still grow and trees still flourish. We viewers, our lifestyles and choices — we are all part of the view.

Andrew Baker serves on the select board in Shelburne, where he co-led a successful three town Solarize campaign in 2016 that helped 70 homeowners install nearly 500 kw of solar power and is now helping Shelburne progress as a Green Community. The views expressed here belong entirely to Andrew Baker and not to the Town of Shelburne.


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