Lawmakers will take up a new policy for siting energy generation projects in Vermont, but not as part of the state’s new renewable energy program, said Rep. Tony Klein, chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
The East Montpelier Democrat is a strong supporter of renewable energy development in Vermont. He told his committee Tuesday that incentives could be used to encourage energy projects to be built on developed areas, such as industrial parks, brownfields and gravel pits.
“If that were the case, then they would get an expedited permit process and they would get a sweetened rate,” he said. “I’m told that those two things will drive developers to want to look at those locations to develop.”
Solar and wind farms have sprouted up across Vermont in recent years, in part due to policies designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions by adding renewable energy generation. Some local communities have opposed these projects, citing aesthetic impacts and questions about property tax revenues, among other reasons.
Klein said any siting policy changes will not be included as part of the state’s proposed renewable energy policy, known as the Renewable Energy Standard and Energy Transformation (RESET), which is currently under development in committee. He has submitted a draft request for a standalone bill, he said.
Some renewable energy advocates agree there should be new standards for how these projects are sited because the industry needs long-term community support to get more projects online.
“With success comes problems,” Klein told his committee.
Solar boom sheds light on siting concerns
The town of New Haven recently voted against a proposed solar project because it did not comply with the town’s energy plan. Rutland Town, which is located near what Green Mountain Power calls the “Solar Capital of New England,” sent a resolution to all municipalities saying the state’s permitting process ignores local input.
New Haven Selectboard member Doug Tolles testified before the committee Tuesday. He said the town will generate 13.5 times the amount of electricity that it consumes if all the proposed solar farms in town are built – about 16 megawatts of generating capacity in a town of 650 homes.
Tolles said because the town is flat, treeless and near accessible, three-phase power lines, it is an attractive location to build solar farms.
“We’re doing our share. We currently produce way more than we use, and we have, in our option, no local control. None,” he said.
Tolles said he is concerned the town will lose property tax revenue if more projects are built. He said the town will lose $11,000 in revenue on a 2.2 megawatt solar project following a tax policy change for solar projects passed last session.
Members of the planning commission in New Haven are developing a plan that would encourage projects to be located on a single, set-aside plot of land that they described as a “solar park,” among other siting recommendations.
New program, new concerns
RESET would require utilities to sell renewable power to customers, some of which must come from new in-state generation.The Department of Public Service says 400 megawatts of new generation would be built in Vermont over the course of the 15-year program.
The proposal includes incentives to make it easier to build generation projects, including a provision currently in law that might allow utilities to use money from electric customers to recover the cost of projects. Officials at the department say the existing incentive has never been used. Another incentive would allow utilities to recover costs from customers associated with permitting renewable energy projects projects.
The bill, H.40, does mention siting. One organization representing landowners in energy generation permitting processes said the new program should address a “broken” regulatory system.
Annette Smith, director Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said it is nearly impossible for towns and neighbors affected by renewable energy projects to participate in the Public Service Board’s Section 248 permitting process for energy projects.
She said the state should use the “infrastructure” of the state’s land use and development permitting process, known as Act 250. Under this proposal, she said a professional land use board would hear all cases related to energy generation projects.
“How can we completely turn this fight that we’re having over renewable energy into something that works for our communities and that brings people together to build the renewable energy that we want,” Smith said.
Dylan Zwicky, of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, an environmental advocacy group opposed to strict siting and setback requirements, said he supports providing additional incentives for siting projects in certain locations and creating tools to greater public engagement in the permitting process. The group has not proposed any specific policy recommendations.
Zwicky said the siting policy should not slow down the development of renewable energy generation.
“The overwhelming majority of Vermonters support the state’s clean energy goals, the support building more renewables, they like looking at renewables,” he said. “It is important to have community buy-in for these projects.”
Klein said while development should be responsible, residents should be aware of where their their electricity comes from.
“For most of our lives, it has been out of sight out of mind. And that’s changing,” Klein said. “When you flip the lights on, there is a cost.”