Vermont’s two most powerful energy regulators told senators that they have serious reservations about two bills aimed at large-scale wind developments.
On Friday, James Volz, chair of the Public Service Board, and Chris Recchia, commissioner of the Department of Public Service, spoke with the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy. Their statements capped off a week of testimony from health, environmental and power experts, as the committee considers how to proceed with legislation aimed at – in part – improving public participation in the permitting process and giving towns greater power in this process.
The first bill, S.30, proposes a three-year moratorium on the development of wind projects with a capacity greater than 500 kilowatts. The bill would also transfer the permitting of energy generation projects away from the Public Service Board and into the hands of regional Act 250 boards, which currently permit other commercial developments based on the state’s governing land-use law. The bill was proposed after strong opposition from local residents to new wind developments across the state, and the controversy has taken on greater political weight since Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., came out last week against the proposal.
The second bill, S.21, would make it so that such permits, called Certificates of Public Good, must incorporate greater municipal oversight. Towers or turbines over 1,500 feet would require approval from the municipality where they are located, by adjoining municipalities that can see the structures and by other affected municipalities. Volz said this language would be difficult to enforce and recommended that the board change the langue to only include adjoining municipalities or municipalities within a 10-mile radius of the project.
Democratic Sen. Bob Hartwell, who chairs the committee, told VTDigger last week that the two bills appear to be merging into one piece of legislation.
While Recchia said his department flatly opposes the proposed moratorium, Volz told the committee, “I don’t have a position on either bill as to whether you should do it or not. I have some concerns about details in the bills.”
Volz acknowledged the barriers to public participation that the statutory process presents.
“I know it’s extremely difficult for citizens to participate in our process,” he said. “It’s very time consuming, and the rules require that they abide by all of the laws and rules just like an attorney would have to. People have done it, but the fact is: It is difficult.”
The problem, he said, for the Public Service Board is that they are following the law, and they can’t change the law – only the Legislature can.
“I’m very aware of the controversy about wind and the concern of the board’s approval of wind projects and the participation of the public in those proceedings,” he told the committee. “I believe we’re implementing the statutes and the rules of civil procedure that we’re bound by appropriately. If you’re unhappy with that result, then maybe you need to think about changing that. We can’t change that unilaterally.”
He told the committee that the governor-appointed siting commission, which is tasked with assessing the state’s energy permitting procedures, would propose a number of solid options to better improve public participation in the board’s process. That proposal, however, will come at the end of the legislative session in April.
One idea Volz proposed was state funding for towns and citizens to obtain legal help during the permitting process. Another proposition to improve public participation that he laid on the table was applying some of the standards used in the Act 250 land-use process, which he acknowledged is more citizen-friendly.
But, he said, moving the permitting process for energy generation projects in its entirety to Act 250 boards “was not a good idea.”
“I thought the bill went way too far in moving all generation siting to Act 250,” he told VTDigger after the testimony. “I don’t see the need for that, and I think it would cause a potential problem for reliability issues and with how we regulate utilities and their spending.”
Volz said it would be difficult for the Public Service Board to ensure the state’s energy needs are met, if the board lost the power to permit energy generation projects.
“Projects being proposed by Vermont utilities for the purpose of maintaining reliability should stay with the Public Service Board,” he said. “In certain parts of the grid, where you have a substantial load, you have to be able to maintain voltage. And if you have demands on the system that cause you to not be able to maintain voltage in that location, then you have to add additional transmission, or bring more power in, or you could add generation to maintain the voltage.”
Recchia took aim at the bills’ overarching agendas.
“We are opposed to the ban or moratorium on wind in S.30,” Recchia said on behalf of the department and the Shumlin administration. “A moratorium of any kind is exactly the wrong direction we could go in at this point.”
His stance is identical to that of Gov. Peter Shumlin who is firmly opposed to the moratorium.
“I understand the concern … but we just completed a comprehensive energy plan last year,” he said about the document that aims to draw 90 percent of the state’s energy from renewable resources by 2050. “It’s very aggressive. … It is in part for climate change. But for me, at the core, it’s for the energy security and economic security for Vermonters.
“For us, the reason the plan was developed the way it was … is that most states and many countries would prefer to have their energy sources indigenous to their areas, so they have more understanding about what the potential is and more control and more security.”
On the issue of S.21, Recchia said, it simply goes too far.
“We think we need to find a better way to have the local voice represented,” but giving local municipalities veto power is “too strong,” he said.
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