Town plans are an important part of Vermont’s history of local control and shouldn’t be ignored when it comes to siting or banning renewable energy projects.
That’s what some Vermonters told the governor’s Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission Monday during a statewide hearing on Vermont Interactive Television.
The commission received praise for giving regional planning commissions like Northeastern Vermont Development Association a say in reviewing renewable energy projects like Seneca Mountain Wind.
The commission was criticized for saying in its draft recommendations that no region or town would be allowed to forbid all or certain kinds of energy plants.
Joel Cope of Brighton, asked what happens when a region like the Northeast Kingdom already has enough wind projects.
Cope asked if the state would force NVDA, which has a three-year suspension of wind projects while studies are conducted, to find places for more wind projects. He asked if other regions will be expected to share the load and find places for wind projects in their own counties.
“Will they still all end up in the Northeast Kingdom?” Cope asked.
Others urged the commission to tell Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Legislature that the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan – which says Vermont will run on 90 percent in-state renewable energy by 2050 – can’t be achieved with today’s technology.
Cynthia Barber, executive coordinator of Newark Neighbors United, said it was too bad that the commission wasn’t asked to examine if the Comprehensive Energy Plan is even “do-able.”
“Can it be done?” Barber asked.
The commission won’t succeed at finding public trust for renewable energy goals unless this question is addressed, Barber said.
Dozens of people spoke from the interactive TV stations in Newport City, Lyndonville and elsewhere in Vermont about the commission’s draft recommendations that will go to the governor and the Legislature on April 30. The commission listened for two hours during this fifth public hearing on energy siting policy.
The governor appointed the commission last year to examine the siting of wind and other power plants as the calls for a moratorium on industrial-sized wind projects on ridgelines grew.
A bill pushed by NEK senators garnered some support for a suspension of wind projects while a study of wind impacts is conducted but the suspension language was stripped out.
The draft recommendations are on the commission’s website. The commission’s draft would provide funds for regions to help towns redo town plans to find high potential and low potential sites for all renewable energy projects. The regional plans would note those sites and be approved by the state. But no town or region would be able to ban all or certain kinds of power plants.
Barry Berstein, president of the board of directors of Washington Electric Cooperative, said the current siting process under Section 248 works.
Berstein said he appreciates the desire for each town to have say.
“I don’t think it’s practical for every town to have a veto right over where we site energy projects,” he said.
Such a veto would mean “no energy generation in any town,” Berstein said.
Noreen Hession of Newark said she has lost her trust in the process. Developers are already not required to conform to town plans, she said. She asked the commission what it will say about towns like Brighton or Newark where turbines are not wanted but are close to Ferdinand, the potential site of Seneca Mountain Wind.
“Your draft doesn’t talk about neighbors having any say,” Hession said.
“I hope you would be brave” and recommend that wind projects go on hold until regional commissions can help towns develop new plans, a process that would take years.
A resident of Windham urged the commission to ask the state to revisit what the “public good” means because the permitting process favors developers and the creation of new power plants the state does not need.
She urged the commission not to strip power from town plans, which are the “social contract” of a town’s future, created when Act 250 came into being.
“Town plans have had an exalted place in Vermont’s history,” she said.
A South Burlington resident asked what happens when a town identifies an open space as worth preserving only to find that it would be used without recourse for an energy project.
Cope said Brighton has decided that tourism is its economic engine and an industrial wind project like Seneca Mountain Wind goes against that.
“Brighton supports renewables but not 500-foot wind turbines,” Cope said.
A Vermont Public Interest Research Group spokesman said too much authority by regional commissions will be harmful. The concept of public good must not be undermined, she said.
Jill Mathers of Newark, a wind supporter, asked the commission what should happen with towns like Newark and Charleston that have already banned wind projects.
“Annoyance is not an acceptable health issue,” Mathers said, otherwise barking dogs and chainsaws would be banned.
Several raised fears that the controversy over big wind projects will hurt all renewable projects.
Charles Pughe, manager of the Lowell wind project for Green Mountain Power, didn’t want to see the permitting process become more expensive, with fees to support more planning.
Robbin Clark of Lowell said that state agencies are being strong-armed in the siting process.
Dennis Liddy, a Lowell wind opponent, asked how the commission would address a conflict between a town and a regional commission or the state over a local ban on wind projects. And he asked what the commission will say about projects that don’t conform to approved regional plans.
David Blittersdorf, who has built Georgia Mountain Wind, said it’s urgent that Vermont add wind and solar projects because of global warming.
Wind and solar must go everywhere possible in Vermont, he said.
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