Vermont lawmakers are struggling with how best to give local communities a voice when big energy projects are planned for their towns.
The main question is how best to balance local concerns with the needs of the state as a whole for renewable energy
The League of Cities and Towns says municipalities deserve a strong voice to determine if large scale wind projects or other energy developments are built within their borders. Karen Horn is the league’s main lobbyist at the Statehouse. She testified on Wednesday before the House and Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committees.
“We’re asking for substantial consideration for our findings; we are not asking for veto authority,” she said. “And we believe that at the municipal level when you have a project actually proposed in a physical location you’re going to get some very different testimony about it at the Public Service Board than you would in the planning phase.”
The legislative committees are looking into whether the state’s review process for energy projects needs to be changed.
The lawmakers are following up on recommendations made a special energy siting commission appointed by Gov. Peter Shumlin. That panel put a greater emphasis on planning. It said towns and regional planning commissions would get more say in whether projects are approved, but only if they followed a detailed planning process based on the state’s energy plan.
But Horn said that’s too complicated. She told lawmakers that towns just want their views to be heard. And she questioned whether projects deemed to be in the overall public good are in fact needed locally.
“We don’t actually know that some of the proposals are needed. Does the Northeast Kingdom need all the wind energy that’s been built up there?” she asked.
Pushing back against the league’s desire for stronger local input is Renewable Energy Vermont, the trade group and lobbying arm of the renewable energy industry. Gabrielle Stebbins is the group’s executive director.
“The question really is more do we want towns to be able to basically control our statewide energy needs and decisions? And Renewable Energy Vermont would support that the Public Service Board process is very rigorous and very detailed and ensures the overall reliability and availability of energy for Vermonter,” she said.
PSB Chairman James Volz urged the committees to be cautious about making big changes.
“I’m not against making improvements to it but I would be very careful about how you go about that, because it’s I think it results in good decisions for the most part,” he said. “Not that everyone agrees with our decisions, but if you read the orders you will see they are well founded for the most part.”
Some lawmakers have supported the idea of a case manager at the PSB to help the public navigate the legal complexities of its hearings. Volz was not very enthusiastic about the idea. He said that the case manager would not be able to sit in on discussions with board staff because of legal rules that bar the PSB and its staff members from talking about contested cases.
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