To be fair, the vote of the combined boards, county and town, did reflect the majority opinion in the room that night. Neighbors, understandably, showed up to voice concern about what they might or might not see of the solar panels and the fence that SunEdison proposes building to hide those photovoltaic arrays. NIMBYism is to be expected in a place that so publicly acknowledges its viewscapes as treasures to be protected.
But some of the comments, and indeed some of the positions taken by boardmembers, belied a troubling lack of perspective, an inability to see the big picture for the speck on the camera lens.
It certainly wasn’t about any of the other senses: the project would emit no odors or fumes; it has no lights to offend the dark skies; it would make no discernable sound; its carbon footprint would be miniscule.
No, this was about visual impact, about planting a solar farm somewhere where it can’t help but be seen. (Ironically, some in the crowd – individuals who have been critical of the attempt by county commissioners to expand the scope of visual impact regulations – came prepared to wield the Section 9 sword against the solar project.)
But that’s just the point: every man-made thing in the county can be seen by somebody, from somewhere. As Commissioner Heidi Albritton has said more than once this summer: the goal of visual impact regulations is not to make new construction invisible. Besides being impossible, it’s not the right goal.
We make judgments all the time about what we see. We stop to take pictures of old fences. New fences, not so much. New fences that look old, sort of, like the ones surrounding the Double RL? Well, he is a tastemaker.
Nicely kept hay fields, good. Overgrazed or abandoned ag land, not so good. Homes that reflect a ranching or mining heritage, good. Monuments to architectural ego, not so good.
The necessities we tolerate: water tanks, electrical substations, sewage treatment plants, power lines. (Or not. Our neighbors in San Miguel County will be paying a surcharge on their electric bills for decades to come because they didn’t want to see a new power line and demanded it be buried underground.)
In the case of the solar farm, we may have to make an aesthetic judgment call. (No decision has been made yet. The planning board’s vote was strictly advisory, and who knows, SunEdison may find another site.) By this I mean that we accept what we see as beautiful.
Solar is the look of a promising future. I see those huge, sculpted, wind-turbine blades going down the highway on flatbeds, and they are beautiful. I drive by other solar farms with their honeycomb patterns and delicate dark-blue efficiency, and they are beautiful.
Far lovelier than natural gas rigs, for example. Or a uranium mill. (I know, it’s not either/or; nobody’s proposing a uranium mill for Ouray County. It’s worth remembering, though, that oil and gas doesn’t have to ask permission. They can decide to move in – whatever our volunteer boards have to say about it – with their roads and lights and drill pads and compressors and evaporation ponds and frac’ing chemicals. Mineral rights have already been leased in the north county.)
A solar farm would be a feather in Ouray County’s cap, a small statement that Americans are trying, finally, to catch up to the rest of the industrialized world in providing sustainable electric power. Spain, Germany, France, Britain, China, the Netherlands – all have a decade’s jump on us.
Yes, some people would see it. Some neighbors would have to get used to seeing it, in the distance, from their decks. The human eye is adaptable; every day we look past abominations to the views we want to see. Courthouse and Chimney Peak are not going anywhere. The Sneffels Range is not going anywhere.
As SunEdison’s project manager Bryan Hammond was being verbally pummeled the other night, I wanted to suggest that he move his project to the hayfield across the street from my house in Colona. I want to see it. I want to feel as if we’re doing something to make a difference.