MONTPELIER – If communities had more of a role in choosing where to put energy projects such as wind turbines and biomass plants, they’d be more apt to accept them.
A state panel heard that message Friday from two people on different sides of a debate that seems to have little common ground: how to develop clean, local energy without infuriating those who live near the projects.
It was one message among many that the Governor’s Energy Siting Policy Commission will have to sort through as it considers making recommendations to the governor and Legislature by the end of April about the state’s process for siting wind turbines, biomass plants, solar projects and other energy sources.
Jan Eastman, chairwoman of the siting panel, indicated she thinks some changes are warranted given the type of energy projects that have appeared in recent years. “The world has changed in the last 20 years,” she said.
Rep. Margaret Cheney, D-Norwich, vice chairwoman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee and a supporter of increasing renewable energy in Vermont, told the panel about her recent trip to Germany. She said a sizable number of renewable energy projects are community-owned and that local regions have a say in designating appropriate areas for projects.
Those factors, she said, seem to make a big difference in communities’ acceptance of renewable projects.
Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, told the panel that the process in place in Vermont today does not work well, but more input from communities would improve it. She is a leading opponent of wind projects recently developed in Sheffield, Lowell and Georgia/Milton, raising concerns about the environmental impacts of the construction and operation of the turbines.
Smith advocated for the state to provide funding for “intervenors,” or those with a stake in a proposed project, as New York does. A common complaint among residents who live near proposed energy sites is that they are outgunned by the companies behind the proposal. Smith recommended $3,000 per megawatt hour of the proposal be provided to help those intervening.
She also said the state should adopt a community stakeholder process by which local residents can negotiate with the developers without the interference of lawyers. She said she’s asked five project developers to go that route and all refused. “They’re going to need a push to do it,” she said
Also addressing the panel Friday was Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, who is pushing for a moratorium on wind projects. He asked the commission to make a moratorium one of its recommendations.
Cheney reminded the panel that the state’s policy, set by the Legislature over the last 15 years, has been to push for more renewable power. The state gets 15.4 percent of its power from in-state renewables now, she said, but will need another 4.6 percent within five years to make its goal.
The panel plans to visit five renewable energy sites within the next month, holding a lottery for members of the public who wanted to go along. Because of the logistics of getting to the top of the mountains in winter (“We have to go up on Snow Cats,” Eastman said), trips to Sheffield and Lowell were limited to two members of the public. With names picked out of a hat Friday, it appeared that wind opponents won most of the slots.
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