MONTPELIER – The fight over a three-year moratorium on industrial wind development in the state may come down to a question of which side can seize the high road on controlling climate change.
Supporters of putting turbines on ridgelines have long argued that big wind is the most efficient tool Vermonters have in fighting global warming.
Opponents at a hearing last week before the Governor’s Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission said that what is really needed is a new approach, a more home-grown strategy to site renewable sources of energy in the state.
“We don’t have to do this in a way that’s a slugfest,” said Annette Smith, as she proposed a siting process that would involve the community from the very beginning.
“We’ve got to get the lawyers out of the room.”
The commission heard testimony Friday, January 11, from Senator Joe Benning of Lyndon, the primary sponsor for the three-year moratorium. The bill, which has eight additional sponsors, was introduced Tuesday in the Senate.
As expected, Senator Benning lobbied the commission to throw its weight behind the moratorium. He argued a moratorium was required to give the state an opportunity to look deeper into the costs-benefits ratio offered by big wind. The bill and the commission, he said, were pursuing the same end.
He said by appointing a siting commission, Governor Peter Shumlin had recognized the need to “take a step back.”
He argued his bill and the commission were aimed in the same direction to “redesign a system and a process” that would properly site renewable energy sources without dividing communities.
One, he added, that would allow Vermonters to participate in the process so at the end they could say: “I’ve had my day in court.”
Senator Benning said he favored a flexible siting process that would be relative to the type of renewable energy source seeking approval.
Blanket approaches do not work, he said at one point, citing the difference between wind and methane generating plants at landfills.
“I’m trying to elevate the conversation without blowing off any more mountaintops,” he said.
While Senator Benning contended the state is putting the cart before the horse in its rush to approve wind projects, commission member Louise McCarren said that the Public Service Board (PSB) is simply implementing a public policy, passed by the Legislature, to build more renewables.
Earlier the commission heard from Andy Tetreault from Lowell, who argued that the current siting process worked well for his town and should be left in place.
Calls for change, he said, would “only serve to paralyze the opportunity for other renewable projects.”
The current process was also supported by Jamie French, whose family owns Meadow Lands Timber that leased land to the developers of the Sheffield project, First Wind.
He testified that Vermont has a responsibility to lead in the development of renewable energy, and that the PSB is looking out for the public good in the siting process.
Also testifying about the progress Vermont has made in siting wind towers through the PSB was Representative Margaret Cheney of Norwich, who sits as vice-chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
Ms. Cheney testified that the law of the land requires Vermont to receive 20 percent of its power through renewables by 2017. With Kingdom Community Wind at Lowell coming on line, she said the state is receiving a little more than 15 percent of its power from renewables.
Sitting in a crowd of roughly 50 people, the new commissioner of the Department of Public Service, Chris Recchia, asked Senator Benning why the renewable energy policy had not gone the way the state intended.
Why, in other words, has it become so controversial?
“It’s political,” replied Senator Benning.
He said under the present system developers have gone to poor towns in remote areas like the Northeast Kingdom and bought acceptance by using annual payments of cash. In the Sheffield project, he added, the full environmental cost of putting turbines on ridgelines has fallen on neighboring towns like Barton.
“If none of you have been to Crystal Lake, please go,” he said, adding that the transformation of the beach area since the towers went up “is not what we consider to be Vermont.”
If Senator Benning’s primary concern is to change the permitting process for renewables – his bill would also shift jurisdiction from the Public Service Board to Act 250 – then he was joined in that effort by Ms. Smith, the executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment and a reluctant write-in candidate in last year’s race for governor.
Ms. Smith said the initiative of siting a wind project today is in the sole hands of the developer. She said developers were the ones who are planning and choosing a potential site, an approach she called plunking it down.
She told the commission that siting required a more collaborative process, one in which all the stakeholders would be involved in from beginning to end.
To make it work would require the state to appropriate intervening funds. All parties would meet repeatedly and gain an understanding – if not consensus – by the time they met in a formal hearing.
Presently, she added, Vermonters are “not getting the answers we need from the PSB.”
During the afternoon session PSB Chairman James Volz told members of the commission his board had not considered the cumulative impact of approving more wind projects for the state.
“We have not looked at the idea, whether it is a good idea for Vermont,” he said.
“If that’s a concern, we need a legislative change,” said Jan Eastman, who chairs the commission.
During a give-and-take afternoon session with state regulators and energy administrators, the question came up of how intervening funds might improve the process. If towns were given more say, for example, their local goals could conflict with statewide energy goals.
Ms. Eastman accepted that possibility but still wondered how the siting process might be made more equitable. “How do we move from the easiest to the best location,” she asked.
And when it comes to siting wind projects, the utilities are no long the ones doing the proposing. “It’s whoever,” she said.
The latest developer to come to Vermont with a proposal is Seneca Wind out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Technical hearings before the PSB on the company’s petition to erect test towers on ridgelines in the towns of Brighton, Ferdinand, and Newark are scheduled to start next Wednesday, January 23.
One of the objections to that project stems from a map from VELCO, the company that manages transmission lines in the state. The map states that no new generating capacity can be added to the northeast section of the state without additional demand for power.
Seneca Wind is reportedly negotiating with ISO New England about its transmission needs.
DPS Commissioner Recchia said in a phone call Tuesday that the map only represents “a snapshot in time,” and one that could change if a new demand arose.
For example, he said a new demand could be created if the $5-million development proposed by Jay Peak’s Bill Stenger goes forward. Or if more power were to be needed to fuel a project across the border in Quebec.
He said it was a question of balance, and a developer could find ways to make it feasible.
PSB Chairman Volz told the commission that transmission issues have already been worked out when a project comes before his board.
The commission will visit wind project sites and hold public hearings next month. Public participators in the visit were chosen by lottery Friday. Two citizens will join the six-member commission that will visit Sheffield on the morning of February 12; and Lowell in the afternoon.
A public hearing will be held that evening at the Lowell Graded School from 5 until 7 p.m.
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