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In waning days of the session, energy bill stalls in Senate

Each day, the chances of the Vermont Legislature passing an energy bill this year appear to get slimmer.

A bill that would require state utilities to buy renewable energy passed the House more than a month ago.

From there, things took a detour.

First, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy voted the bill down on a 3-2 vote. Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, sided with two Republicans to oppose the bill. It came back later with the addition of an amendment that would treat biomass facilities differently based on how efficient they are. The committee then switched gears and voted for it.

Legislative Council attorney Aaron Adler walked through the bill in the Senate Committee on Finance Tuesday.

That committee has yet to hear testimony on the bill, and the legislative session is in what could be its final week. The original goal to adjourn was last Friday.

In what seems to be a contingency measure to save the bill, the House scrapped a bill on smart meters and replaced it with the bill that it passed.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the Senate took up the bill briefly. Sen. Virginia Lyons, chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, asked that it go to a conference committee where representatives of both bodies could reconcile the differences between the two.

After a recess, the Senate decided to postpone the issue further.

The constant delay in the Senate concerns supporters of the bill both inside and outside the Legislature.

Rep. Margaret Cheney, vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, said the stalled bill raises serious concerns about the way the Legislature functions.

Cheney said the energy bill was the first piece of legislation her committee took up in January. The panel worked on it for weeks. It passed the House on roughly a 2-to-1 margin and stalled in Senate committees from there.

Seeing the bill might not make it out in time, the House sent it back over as a strike-all to a bill the Senate already passed.

“Knowing what an important bill it is with such support, we kept the language going through another bill that would have a more direct path straight to the Senate body,” Cheney said.

She said she was concerned that such an important bill could not get full consideration on both sides of the Legislature.

“It’s not about whether we expect everyone to support the bill or not,” Cheney said. “It’s about whether in an orderly fashion it will make it through the ordinary steps that a bill takes from beginning to end.”

The primary differences between the Senate and House versions are the biomass tiering issue and a special program for IBM – the state’s largest energy user – that would allow it to receive credit for reducing the greenhouse gases produced in its manufacturing process.

Under both scenarios, the state would move from a voluntary program based on favorable contracts for renewable projects to a mandatory renewable portfolio standard, where utilities would have to show they have the attributes of “green” power.

The energy bill would require utilities to purchase 35 percent of the energy from “new renewable” sources that came online after 2005. The bill also sets a goal of 75 percent renewable energy by that time. Energy from dams produced by Hydro-Quebec would count toward the 75 percent goal but not the lower requirement.

For the first time in Vermont, utilities would have to keep renewable energy credits that account for a generating facility’s “green” attributes. Currently, utilities are able to sell these credits to other states in New England with renewable portfolio standards.

Industry groups and utilities have criticized the bill since the Vermont Department of Public Service predicts it will result in an increase in electric rates.