MONTPELIER >> More than 100 people turned out for a Vermont Statehouse hearing Tuesday on growing concern that the state’s push to build renewable energy is causing aesthetic and other environmental problems.
The crowd was divided between those arguing that climate change demands aggressive development of solar, wind and other renewable energy projects; and others complaining that the state’s siting process effectively shuts out many residents.
When a neighboring business decided to install an array of solar power panels, the state Public Service Board gave “a rubber stamp approval with incredibly little oversight,” said John McGuire of Ferrisburgh.
But Phil Pouech, a Hinesburgh Select Board member who works in the wind energy industry, took exactly the opposite view, saying the public good of the state outweighs local concerns.
“We cannot as town members or Select Board members really understand the public good because we cannot see outside our (town) borders,” Pouech said.
He said “clean renewable energy is cost effective, it has very little environmental impact and it keeps economic activities within our communities,” he said.
Several bills have been filed relating to the state’s energy siting process, but prospects for passage are doubtful this year with about six weeks remaining in the 2015 legislative session.
Many of the speakers on Tuesday indicated they had been involved in the debate over energy siting for years and would continue their involvement even if the Legislature makes no changes this year.
Annette Smith of Danby, founder of the group Vermonters for a Clean Environment, contrasted the Public Service Board siting process unfavorably with Vermont’s Act 250 law, which regulates other types of development. She said the Act 250 process is much more welcoming to citizen involvement.
Act 250 has an elaborate system allowing private citizens a say in development projects, Smith said.
Energy projects are regulated separately, through the Public Service Board.
Smith and several other speakers said the process required them to hire lawyers and costly experts and still did not produce what was in their view a fair result.
Rutland Mayor Chris Louras testified that local communities can have a strong say in where solar installations sit within their borders, but need to take leadership and be involved in the projects’ development early.
Paul Stone of Orwell, a former state agriculture commissioner, as well as a Select Board and Planning Commission member in his town, said many Vermonters had spent hundreds or thousands of volunteer hours serving on such boards, only to have the Public Service Board trump local decision-making in the siting of projects.
“Plain and simple, solar energy projects are development and they’re ugly,” Stone said.
He called on the Legislature to strip the Public Service Board of siting authority over the projects.