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Governor: Time for fresh look at how Vermont sites energy projects

Vermont’s increasingly clamorous debate over the siting of renewable energy projects – particularly mountaintop wind turbines – took an unexpected turn Wednesday.

Gov. Peter Shumlin issued an executive order creating a five-person commission to study changes in the way new electrical generation facilities are sited, reviewed and approved in Vermont.

His order comes amid growing local opposition to ridgeline wind turbines in several communities and complaints that individuals and towns have little say in whether or not sometimes intrusive energy installations are built.

The order also follows discussions with six environmental groups and a letter from them urging the administration to take a fresh look at planning for wind development.

Public Service Commissioner Elizabeth Miller was charged with choosing the five panel members and did so Wednesday, naming four former state officials and a retired regional planner.

They are to recommend improvements in the review process by April 30, 2013.

“It’s not that the process isn’t working now, but it was designed for far fewer projects at a different scale,” Miller said, noting that the number of generating facilities seeking approval from the Public Service Board has tripled in recent years.

“Why would we be afraid to look at ways to improve?” she asked.

Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment and a leading foe of commercial-scale wind development, described the commission as “sorely needed” but disagreed that the review process works well now.

“The process is clearly broken,” she said, and the governor ought to declare a moratorium on reviewing any pending projects until after the new commission reports.

Still another perspective came from Renewable Energy Vermont, a trade group, which said it hoped the process could be improved to encourage more renewable development.

“Vermont is one of the few states that has a permitting process with no end-date, resulting in projects that have taken years for approval, projects that generate clean energy and green jobs,” said Gabrielle Stebbins, the group’s executive director.

The specific instructions to the commission indicate that the Shumlin administration – which strongly supports renewable energy development in Vermont – has heard the growing chorus of complaints about the siting of mountaintop wind energy projects in particular.

New energy generating facilities in Vermont are approved by the state Public Service Board in a quasi-judicial procedure heavy on legal process and expert testimony. Approval or rejection can take many months or years.

Like Stebbins, developers have concerns about the length and uncertainty of the process. Individuals and some communities opposed to wind energy development on specific ridgelines have complained that they do not have the financial resources to pay experts and hire lawyers to defend their interests.

“This whole concept of being a ‘host community’ is ridiculous – we didn’t invite them in. We feel we are being bulldozed, not being a host,” Michael Channon, chairman of the selectboard in the town of Newark, said recently of a wind energy project proposed for his town.

Among Shumlin’s charges to the Governor’s Energy Siting Policy Commission:

Compare Vermont’s process, including timelines and approval criteria, with other states, particularly those in New England.

Compare the opportunity for participation in the process by individuals, town governments and regional planners with procedures in other states.

Analyze whether “Vermont’s criteria for electric generation project siting approval adequately protects Vermont’s lands, environmental resources and cultural resources,” when it comes to individual projects and the cumulative impact of multiple projects.

Consider whether the state should develop generic siting guidelines to “provide guidance on environmental impacts, location, aesthetics and other common issues.”

One thing missing from the charge: A request to produce a map that would show areas for potential wind energy development. That was one of the suggestions of the six environmental groups, including Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, the Green Mountain Club and the League of Conservation Voters in their letter to the governor last month.

At the Vermont Natural Resources Council, one of the signers, director Brian Shupe said the groups were not challenging the desirability of renewable energy projects, but looking for “how to do it best for the state.”

“The concern is that the Public Service Board has never dealt with land use permitting and environmental issues, and now they are doing that,” he said.

The commission members named Wednesday are: Scott Johnstone, executive director of the Vermont Energy Investment Corp. and a former Agency of Natural Resources secretary; Jan Eastman, a lawyer and former Agency of Natural Resources secretary; former Public Service Board Chairman Louise McCarren; former House Speaker Gaye Symington, now director of the High Meadows charitable fund; and Jim Matteau, former executive director of the Windham Regional Commission.

The commission has yet to meet, but Smith, the wind opponent, said she expects those who share her views to attend the panel’s meetings and make their voices heard.

“We look forward to public participation, which I guarantee will be well attended. They better get a big room,” she said.