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Vermont wind-energy panel examines other states’ procedures

MONTPELIER – The governor’s blue-ribbon panel on siting energy projects got a first glimpse Wednesday of how Vermont’s debate regarding wind energy is mirrored in other New England states.

After regulators from Maine and Connecticut described and defended the way they make siting decisions, several wind-turbine opponents from those states spoke up.

“We have been fighting an inappropriately sited wind project for two years now. It has cost us, I’m embarrassed to say how much – let’s say ‘X’ millions of dollars,” Michael Somers of Colebrook, Conn., told the Commission on Energy Generation Siting Policy. He urged Vermont to provide financial assistance to private individuals who want to participate in the review process.

Otherwise, he said, “the process is inherently unfair,” because developers have more financial resources than individuals or communities have.

Monique Aniel, a new resident of Ferrisburgh, said that when she lived in Maine, it took concerted effort by citizen activists to force changes in noise standards for wind projects. A report on what is wrong with Maine’s approval process is now in front of the governor for action, she said.

The Vermont commission was named by Gov. Peter Shumlin to recommend improvements in the state’s process for approving sometimes controversial energy projects.

Such projects must be approved by the Public Service Board. There has been a rising chorus of complaints by opponents of some mountaintop wind projects that the board process is too legalistic and gives insufficient weight to town plans, community opinion and environmental impacts.

The five commission members, whose report is due in April, are trying to keep their sessions inclusive of all forms of energy generation and focused on the Public Service Board process.

But at the commission’s first two meetings, the audience has been dominated by supporters and opponents of wind energy development. Many of the comments are directed at the benefits and environmental costs of wind energy – subjects beyond the commission’s purview.

“We haven’t been asked to re-do the state’s energy plan that the Legislature has adopted,” Commission Chairman Jan Eastman of Peacham said after Wednesday’s meeting. That energy plan calls for construction of additional renewable-energy generation in Vermont.

On the other hand, she said, the commission might examine and make recommendations about how much weight the Public Service Board should give factors such as local public opinion.

The commission took testimony from four nearby states Wednesday as it searches for ideas about how Vermont might change its process.

They heard of many similarities – Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut all weigh the environmental impact of generation facilities, for example – but also of significant differences.

Massachusetts, for example, provides state review only of projects greater than 100 megawatts, which is larger than any renewable project ever proposed for Vermont. Smaller facilities are reviewed by the communities in which they are located.

In Maine, the state environmental agency, not the utilities commission, is solely responsible for environmental review of energy developments.

New Hampshire uses similar standards in its review of energy siting, which is carried out by a 15-member board of state officials. It has never denied a permit, attorney Mike Iocopino told the Vermont commission.

As in Vermont, he said, the siting board is required to consider the views of municipal governments and regional planning commissions.

That’s not always clear-cut, however, as wind projects can divide communities in the Granite State as they do here. He described a current application for wind development in Antrim, N.H.

“The Selectboard is for it, but the Planning Commission and the Conservation Commission are opposed,” he said.

At its next meeting, Nov. 30, the Vermont panel will take testimony from people who have participated in energy-siting cases before the Public Service Board.