MONTPELIER – Plans for a third utility wind farm on the ridgelines of the Northeast Kingdom may have created common ground for the four state senators who represent what is considered the most rural region in the state.
“It’s the first time that the four of us stood together on anything since I’ve been here,” said first term Senator Joe Benning of Lyndon, speaking Tuesday in an interview.
Mr. Benning had reason for counting votes. He was the lead sponsor of a measure that would have imposed a two-year moratorium on utility wind farm development in the state.
The measure failed by an 18 to 11 vote, but Mr. Benning said he was happy with the support he received on “an issue that was brand new to the body.”
A recent walk up Lowell Mountain where Green Mountain Power is putting up 21 large-scale turbines was enough to make him raise the issue on the Senate floor last week.
He told fellow senators that what is going on on Lowell Mountain is soon “coming to a mountain near you.”
In proposing his moratorium as an amendment to the budget bill, Senator Benning told his colleagues that the Northeast Kingdom is under siege by wind developers.
He said he brought his motion to the floor knowing that wind developers from Eolian Renewable Energy from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, are making plans for a large wind farm that would straddle three towns and two counties in the Northeast Kingdom.
From east to west the towns are Ferdinand and Brighton of Essex County and Newark of Caledonia County.
According to a tape of the debate, Senator Benning argued that a moratorium was needed so legislators could have time to discuss industrial wind projects without the worry of another mountaintop being destroyed. Neither Sheffield Wind nor Kingdom Community Wind on Lowell Mountain would have been affected by the measure.
But his motion and assertion that wind projects need a more in-depth review brought a challenge from Senator Ginny Lyons, who chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.
She said a balance had to be struck “between two goods” – wind power and ridgelines. She noted that an energy bill passed out by her committee would instruct the Agency of Natural Resources to map out ridgelines where turbines could or could not be sited.
She went on to chide the amendment for lacking substance and for being introduced too late in the session to take testimony. And she asked members to vote it down with reassurances that safeguards are already in place.
“All the reassurances in the world haven’t really addressed this,” said a co-sponsor to the amendment, Senator Robert Hartwell of Bennington, pointing to aerial pictures showing the destructive impact construction was having on Lowell Mountain.
He also said he had been bothered by testimony from one wind developer that Vermont has 200 miles of ridgelines suitable for wind development.
Of the Northeast Kingdom senators who voted for the moratorium – which included Senator Vince Illuzzi of Derby and Senator Jane Kitchel representing Caledonia County – Senator Bobby Starr of North Troy argued that ridgelines are being ruined for a renewable resource of energy that is unreliable and inefficient.
Mr. Starr called wind development on neighboring ridgelines a slap in the face to the seven generations of his family who have worked and lived on the land.
But the majority of senators refused to go along with a measure that had not been tested by testimony in committees or gone through the process.
Washington County Senator Ann Cummings said that while the amendment had “great emotional pull,” it needed more review.
Similar sentiments were echoed by Lamoille Senator Richard Westman, who also noted the amendment could upend the deadline for bringing renewable sources of energy on line by 2017.
He said the wind projects in Sheffield and Lowell make up 14 percent of the 20 percent of renewable energy that utilities are required to have by that date. Without wind, he said, the state would be unable to meet that goal.
Near the end of the debate Senator Benning made an emotional plea for support.
“My Northeast Kingdom is under attack and I’m begging you to understand,” he said.
On Tuesday he said in an interview that unfortunately, utility wind development on ridgelines is a “parochial issue” that pits the Northeast Kingdom against those who believe something must be done to control climate change.
He said he plans to use wind development as an issue in his campaign this year. And, if re-elected, he said he would introduce a bill calling for a moratorium on utility wind projects.
House steps back from the brink of intervention
Caution and tradition beat back a push prompting the Legislature to intervene in the utility merger that is now before the Public Service Board (PSB).
At issue among those doing the pushing was what Derby Representative Bob Lewis said was a question of fairness.
Roughly $21-million in ratepayers’ money had been used to bail out Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS) when it was on the brink of bankruptcy several years ago. A proposed merger between CVPS and Green Mountain Power is presently before the Public Service Board – one that could substitute efficiency benefits for cash, leaving some ratepayers with little or nothing to show for their loan.
For Representative Lewis and his House colleagues, it came down to a question of whether the Legislature should intervene in a regulatory process to ensure a cash payback for ratepayers.
In considering his vote, the second-term Republican said he had been “pulled in a lot of different directions.”
He said he was aware that if the Legislature intervened in an open docket, it would set a poor precedent and create instability that would leave members of the regulatory community asking: Who’s next?
But Representative Lewis said he was going to support the intervention because after listening to his heart, he had come away with the conviction that “when a man makes a deal he sticks to that deal no matter what.”
And money borrowed was money owed.
His colleague from Glover and fellow House member saw the issue in a different light. As a member of the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development, Sam Young had spent hours over the last two weeks listening to testimony on whether the Department of Public Service (DPS) – the public watchdog in utility cases – had let the public down.
Suspicions it had quickly gained traction a month or so ago when legislators learned the details of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the department and Green Mountain Power (GMP). The deal said that ratepayers would receive a payback in the form of efficiency benefits, like winterization. Most troublesome, however, the deal also allowed the new and bigger utility to recoup the money spent on those benefits by raising customers’ electrical rates in the future.
Representative Young’s doubts over whom DPS was representing may have found expression in an amendment he sponsored with committee member Paul Ralston of Middlebury. Simply put, the amendment would create an independent advocate who would represent ratepayers, small businesses, and municipalities before the board.
And perhaps that was why the freshman lawmaker stood to become one of the 14 members who asked to explain their vote, following the amendment’s defeat by an 87 to 54 margin.
“While my gut says ‘yes’ I voted ‘no’ because I had the benefit of a week and a half of testimony,” said Mr. Young, following the roll call vote Friday, April 27.
“Now it’s up to the Public Service Board to make the right decision and everyone is watching.”
From the beginning of the debate Thursday, April 26, to its end a day later, there was never any doubt where opponents of the amendment stood.
At the Democrats caucus that was held Thursday morning before the floor debate got underway, Representative Ernie Shand of Windsor – a member of the House Commerce Committee that had earlier rejected the amendment – told party members that “our biggest concern is reaching into an active docket.”
Montpelier Representative Tony Klein, chairman of the House Energy Committee, spelled out his position in no uncertain terms.
If the amendment passed, he said, he would introduce legislation the next day to disband the Public Service Board.
“That’s the door we’re opening if we go down this path.”
The House was on full alert when Representative Cynthia Browning of Bennington introduced her amendment: The merger would only be allowed to go through if ratepayers got their money back.
Representative Margaret Cheney of Windsor stood in opposition and called the amendment radical.
Newport Representative Duncan Kilmartin responded by saying the only radical action confronting legislators was to ensure that “our energy future is not owned by a foreign government.”
“Why Quebec,” he asked at one point.
After noting that GMP is owned by the Quebec firm, Gaz Metro, Mr. Kilmartin said if the merger went through, a Canadian company would gain control of Vermont transmission corridors, thereby gaining the means to sell it surplus power to new American markets.
Sovereignty was not the issue for others.
“The people of Milton want their money back,” said Ron Hubert, the member who represents the people of Milton.
But as Barre City Representative Paul Poirier rose to argue that the Legislature has a constitutional right to intervene “if we believe the public interest of Vermonters is at issue,” a buzz ran through the House that disrupted and ended debate for the day.
As the din rose all around her, Representative Browning was on her feet, asking the speaker for permission to withdraw her amendment.
While the House had been debating, the Senate had acted, tacking an amendment of its own on to the appropriations bill or what is known as the big bill.
Sponsored by 24 senators, including all four from the Northeast Kingdom, the amendment said that ratepayers should be paid back in either credit or a refund, for the money they had paid through higher rates “to prevent the bankruptcy or financial instability of utility.” Moreover, the amendment forbade the utility from raising rates in the future to recoup the payoff.
The Senate amendment resulted in a public scolding from Governor Peter Shumlin, an early supporter of the merger. And on the House floor the next day, opponents of legislative interference seized the initiative and introduced a resolution.
The resolution said in effect that the Legislature expected that the issues raise over the merger would “be given full consideration, and that the final agreement must be in the best interest of the ratepayers and the people of the State of Vermont.”
There were some who wanted to hoot it down upon learning the resolution would not be sent directly to the PSB. Representative Cheney, who introduced it, explained that the Department of Public Service would see that it reached the board’s hands.
It passed on a roll call vote of 99 to 43, although Representative Kilmartin rose once again to warn that the merger would lead to foreign ownership.
Back on her feet, Representative Browning introduced a one-sentence amendment to the amendment she had proposed earlier. It simply said the utilities could not raise rates to recoup payments to ratepayers. It easily passed, and the debate continued over whether the House should intervene in the merger case.
Representative Poirier took up where he had left off Thursday. “Try to keep the word fairness in the back of your head,” he told House members.
He went on to argue that the real issue was one about trust in government, asking if government could not be trusted to do something on this issue, what would it do when it came to health care?
Mr. Kilmartin said the failure of DPS to represent citizens and ratepayers had made the amendment necessary because no one else “is saying this is a bad deal.”
But his fellow Republican and running mate from Orleans County disagreed. Representative Michael Marcotte, who is the vice-chairman of the House Commerce Committee, said the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) had done a creditable job in representing ratepayers, making the case before the board why they should receive a $21-million payback.
And while he supported that end, the eight-year veteran lawmaker from Coventry said he would not support the Legislature intervening in a case already in the hands of PSB.
The most scathing attack came from a legislator who said he was initially opposed to the Legislature intervening in the case. But upon learning the details of the MOU, had changed his mind.
“In the Vermont I know, a deal is a deal,” said Tom Koch of Barre Town.
He went on to say the MOU stunk and compared it to “taking a pig out of a pen and dressing it up for the county fair.”
Following the defeat of the amendment, the House went on to pass the Ralston-Young amendment, which keeps the idea alive that the public deserves it own advocate – someone other than DPS, in other words, whose members serve at the privilege of the Governor.
As passed by the House, a study group will meet over the summer to look into the possibility of creating a public defender and submit recommendations to the Legislature in January 2013.
“Whatever you thought about this merger, it won’t happen this way again,” said Representative Ralston.
The budget or big bill, along with the merger amendment, is now before a conference committee made up three members each from the House and Senate.
Over the weekend Speaker Shap Smith was quoted in the press as saying the House would not support any amendments that went beyond the bill’s purpose, raising money for the support of government.