MONTPELIER – A report by a special commission charged with reviewing the process of siting energy projects in Vermont, including wind, was received with skepticism Wednesday by some lawmakers.
The House and Senate Committees on Natural Resources and Energy were briefed on the report and recommendations made by the Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission. Linda McGinnis, director of the commission, said the group is making 28 specific recommendations that are broken down into five broad themes:
Increased emphasis on planning.
Simplifying and streamlining.
Increasing opportunities for public participation.
Improving transparency and efficiency.
Ensuring adequate environmental, health and other protections.
The commission was created through an executive order by Gov. Peter Shumlin following a failed attempt by some lawmakers to implement a moratorium on new wind power projects in the state.
Opponents of wind power have long complained that the state’s Public Service Board does not weigh local and public concerns enough in its deliberations.
Among the specific recommendations from the committee are developing a “state road map” for meeting Vermont’s statutory energy targets and the goals of a state Comprehensive Energy Plan to help lawmakers understand paths for in-state and out-of-state energy production.
Regional planning commissions should also develop maps of potential areas suitable for electric generation siting.
The report also calls for the implementation of a tier system. Smaller projects under 500 kilowatts would have fewer requirements, while projects between 500 kilowatts and 2.2 megawatts, 2.2 megawatts to 15 megawatts and projects greater than 15 megawatts would be subject to increasing scrutiny and time requirements.
Tier 1 projects, under 500 kilowatts, would take 30 days to three months. Tier 2, with projects generating between 500 kilowatts and 2.2 megawatts, would take three to six months. Tiers 3 and 4 would take about nine months and 12 months, respectively.
The tier system would include an expedited process for projects that have support from a municipality or regional planning commission, McGinnis said.
Meanwhile, public participation would be improved by requiring earlier notification for larger, more involved projects, according to McGinnis.
“It’s basically saying you need to have stronger public participation in the beginning,” she said. “In the end you have more expedient approval for the best project, not just the easiest projects.”
Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate committee, raised concerns about creating a system that would allow new energy generation projects to be expedited.
“There’s a lot in here that kind of expedites things, kind of moves things along,” he said.
Hartwell questioned why the commission didn’t seek to create a public advocate that would represent the general public in new generation site proceedings before the Public Service Board.
“Why not give them an entity that puts them on an even playing field?” he asked.
Chris Recchia, commissioner of the Department of Public Service, said his department includes a public advocacy division.
Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange, complained that the tier system proposed by the commission would actually slow some projects down.
“That is not streamlining,” he said. “This chart slows things down. It creates a kind of dam.”
McGinnis said the proposed system would add more requirements for large-scale energy products while streamlining smaller projects and projects with broad support.
“For the more complex projects you’re actually adding more requirements. You’re adding a significant requirement and it will be slower for the more complex projects,” she said.
Rep. Michael Hebert, a Republican who represents the town of Vernon, home of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant slated to close next year, expressed concern that the system proposed by the commission would allow unpopular projects to move forward over local objections.
“The concern that I have and many other people that I’ve spoken with is, what are we willing to sacrifice for the greater good?” Hebert said. “Are we willing to sacrifice the Northeast Kingdom, or a segment of Windham County for the public good? This document does appear to be a top-down document and it does limit local control significantly.”
The two legislative committees also heard a range of views from the public Wednesday afternoon. Those testifying Wednesday presented a range of views.
Tim Freed of Newark said the report was “thorough and comprehensive” and urged the committees to adopt it “as quickly as possible.”
“We need to change the process and approach to siting industrial wind projects. The current process, it’s neighbor against neighbor, town against town,” Freed said. “It’s unacceptable and resulting in turning dedicated citizens into skeptics and cynics.”
But Kathleen Nelson of Brighton called the commission’s streamlining plan “pretty messed up.” She said it would result is less public participation.
“When the siting commission says that they want more public participation … what they are saying is they want more public pacification,” Nelson said.
Johanna Miller, the energy program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, said her group is “pleased” with the report. She said it will serve as an “important foundation” for lawmakers to revise the current policies.
Some of the recommendations made Wednesday will require legislative action, McGinnis said.
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