Lawmakers removed a contentious element from a bill that would change the permitting process for large wind and other energy generation projects.
The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee unanimously decided on Tuesday to scratch a three-year moratorium on wind project developments with a production capacity greater than 500 kilowatts. The moratorium was unpopular among Democratic House leaders and the Shumlin administration.
The new version of S.30 would insert into the Public Service Board’s approval process a mandatory conformance to Act 250 criteria for siting energy projects larger than 500 kW. The bill would also prohibit the construction of any commercial or electric generation projects on state forests. That provision was originally part of S.21.
Additionally, the bill would initiate a comprehensive assessment on the potential economic, health and environmental issues associated with large-scale wind generation plants. The report for that assessment would be due to the Legislature by Nov. 15. The committee has budgeted $100,000 for the study.
Sen. Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington, who co-sponsored the original bill and chairs the committee, said he was convinced during recent testimony that there is no need for a moratorium on large-scale wind projects in Vermont. The goal of the bill, he said, is to give local people a greater say over the process.
“I think the big part is that as we went along, it became clear that we could make better the issues that we discovered without going into a moratorium,” he said. “There will be no suspension in the right to file an application.”
Requiring the Public Service Board to enforce Act 250 criteria, the state’s governing land-use law, which relies heavily on town plans, was also a substantial change, Hartwell said.
While the Public Service Board already considers Act 250 criteria, the quasi-judicial body is not required to conform with the land-use law, according to Hartwell.
“I think that’s a significant change, and one for the better,” he added. “I don’t think the Public Service Board will have any trouble handling that.”
Four of the committee’s five members indicated on Tuesday they would vote for the legislation on Wednesday. Rep. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, was hesitant, but the committee was amenable to including provisions that she requested. One of those additions is a finding that states Vermont lawmakers believe in climate change science and support the state’s renewable energy goals.
Although most of the committee members are happy with the legislation, representatives from the renewable energy industry say the bill goes too far and anti-wind activists say it doesn’t go far enough.
Annette Smith, director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, staunchly opposes large-scale wind development in Vermont. “The legislation is half-baked,” she says, if it doesn’t provide funding for towns and citizens to represent themselves in Public Service Board proceedings.
“One of the things that is said over and over is that there are no immediate projects coming through, and that’s not true,” she said.
On the other side of the fence is Gabrielle Stebbins, who directs the trade association Renewable Energy Vermont. Stebbins said she is relieved the senators eliminated the proposed moratorium, but giving towns elevated power over the permitting process is a mistake in her view.
The discussion, she said, should be centered on how the state can achieve the high bar set by the Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan, which calls on the state to shift 90 percent of its energy portfolio to renewable sources by 2050 (http://publicservice.vermont.gov/publications/energy_plan/2011_plan).
“This is a state problem and a state challenge,” she said. “I still think we need to bring … the municipalities into the conversation with how are we going to meet this 90 percent by 2050 goal – not where is it OK to put (turbines) and where is it not OK.”
The bill, she said, might prevent the state from accomplishing its goal.
“We’re starting at the end of the conversation,” Stebbins added. “The beginning of the conversation is how do we transform our energy future and from there then you go to: where do we site this?”
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