MONTPELIER — Those involved in building renewable energy projects detailed a long, thorough, expensive process they have to go through for state approval, which they said mostly works well, though it involves too many people and is too unpredictable.
Residents who’ve opposed some of those projects detailed a frustrating, rushed process in which they are behind from the start, out-monied, out-lawyered and usually ignored.
The state’s new energy siting commission heard both points of view at its third meeting Friday afternoon. The panel is weighing whether any changes should be made to the way new energy generation projects are approved in Vermont, with a report due in April.
It was readily apparent Friday that solving that conflict won’t be easy.
The state Legislature has made it clear that state policy calls for building renewable energy, as it set aggressive goals for increasing the amount of energy that comes from renewable sources, said Don Rendall, vice president of Green Mountain Power Corp., which is completing a controversial wind project in Lowell.
“We can’t achieve those goals without aggressive renewable deployment,” Rendall told the commission Friday, warning against changes to open the process further. “As we expand public participation, we make it more difficult to achieve our goal of developing renewable power.”
Looking at other New England states’ rules for approving projects, Rendall said it’s clear to him that Vermont’s are the most rigorous.
Rendall recounted that Green Mountain Power went through a nine-day Public Service Board trial, with 12 intervening parties and 50 witnesses before winning approval for the Lowell project. “We certainly can say every party was listened to,” he said, even if every party didn’t get what it wanted.
Several project developers told the commission Friday that they believe Vermont’s process is plenty rigorous. They spoke mostly positively of the way they were treated by state agencies, though they said the Public Service Board is understaffed and they asked for a more predictable timeline, with limits on challenges.
Josh Bagnato of First Wind, the company that developed the wind project in Sheffield, said Maine has a set timeline for projects to be approved, while in Vermont the timing is unpredictable.
Bagnato recommended that the state enact a provision allowing for opponents who make frivolous claims to be charged for the time they take up.
That drew vocal jeers from many in the audience of about 50 in a Capital Plaza Hotel conference room. Many in the crowd were opponents of proposed and constructed wind projects in Lowell, Sheffield and Newark.
Those opponents had their turn in front of the commission’s microphone too, most of them speaking about wind projects. They were far less satisfied with the process.
Bob Kischko of Springfield, an opponent of a proposed biomass project there, said in all the projects, residents are far behind before they ever learn the project is coming. By then, he said, developers have chosen the site, met with state agencies and met with community leaders. The only people in the dark are ordinary residents, he said.
“It’s a mismatch,” said Rob Pforzheimer of Sutton, who opposed the Sheffield wind project and said his town spent $80,000 on experts only to have them ignored by the state Public Service Board. “It’s hopeless.”
As opponents spoke, their PowerPoint presentation in the background read, “PSB process helps developers, treats citizens and towns as complications.”
“The average citizen just has to sit back and take it,” said Don Nelson, who lives next to the 21 Lowell turbines that recently started operation. He said their noise experts were disregarded, but now that the turbines are running, “To me, it sounded like a 747 that came in to land and you were right under it.”
Kevin McGrath of Lowell showed the panel photos of unprecedented flooding after the Lowell turbines were installed, a process that involved blasting rock to clear the way.
Kischko questioned whether the power from these projects will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encouraged the panel to consider taking into account a project’s overall value to society.
Commission Chairwoman Jan Eastman said the panel will meet again Dec. 6, Dec. 19 and Jan. 11, and plans to make site visits to projects in January and February. It will produce a draft report in March and a final report in April.