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VLCT director argues for more local input in energy project permitting

Towns affected by energy generation projects are lobbying for more input in the Public Service Board’s permitting process, but the chair of that board says the current process works well for the state as a whole.

Karen Horn, director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, spoke on towns’ behalf during a joint Committee on Natural Resources and Energy meeting Wednesday.

Horn said towns have little say in these projects under Section 248, the state statute guiding energy generation and transmission siting procedures.

Section 248 requires that state energy projects be approved by the quasi-judicial Public Service Board.

Horn said she is not suggesting that towns have veto power over the board’s decisions, but she does want the statute’s language changed to give towns an effective voice in the process.

Communities have become concerned over the permitting process because of the impact some energy generation projects, such as the 21-turbine wind project on Lowell Mountain, have on the surrounding countryside.

However, the Public Service Board’s task, as described in Section 248, is to decide whether projects are in the state’s public interest, said Jim Volz, chair of the board.

Volz said unlike in the past, when utilities sited their own projects, in recent years, private companies came into the state to set up small to medium-sized energy generation projects, which require statewide regulation and approval.

He said the current approval procedure for these projects is good for the state as a whole.

“I think fundamentally the decision-making process that we have for the board, I think results in sound decisions that are well supported,” Volz said.

Though the board’s approval process has been labeled a “black box” that lacks transparency, he said the permitting process includes public hearings, and the disclosure of publicly available documents and written opinions outlining the board’s reasons for their decision.

“It’s very transparent, from my perspective,” Volz said. “In that sense, I think we are doing things correctly.”

He said lawmakers should be careful what changes they make to the current siting procedure. However, he said the board would adopt changes with the appropriate funding to do so.

“I’m not against making improvements to it, but I would be very careful how you go about doing that,” Volz said.

The Vermont Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission’s April report recommended several revisions to the permitting process.

One of the commission’s suggestions to improve transparency would be to provide the board with a case manager, a new position that would likely serve as a spokesperson for the board.

Volz said the only guidance a case manager or spokesperson could provide to the public would be details about the board’s procedures, not necessarily the details of confidential project cases.

The siting policy commission recommends a four-tier procedure to approve projects, a proposal that would increase the public’s involvement in energy generation projects.

The commission’s recommendations assign four separate permitting processes for installments that produce different amounts of energy. Under the recommendation, smaller projects, such as those producing up to 500 kilowatts, would be approved faster than larger projects, such as those greater than 15 megawatts.

June Tierney, general counsel for the Public Service Board, said these tiers should be separated by a project’s size, such as the amount of land it covers, and not just its energy output.

Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, who chairs the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said the future siting process for energy generation projects will likely be less controversial than those in the recent past.

“The scene, the stage, is changing rapidly,” he said. “All of this focus, OK, on changing a lot of things to address something that has already occurred, to change it for the future, is probably unnecessary.”

He said he does not expect to see another large-scale wind project for about 10-15 years.

Also, he said, private landowners, whose income may depend partly on selling land for these projects, should not have their deals overthrown by local opposition.