A last-minute squabble over siting requirements for solar and wind projects has delayed action on a major renewable energy bill.
The delay could jeopardize passage of H.40 this session. More amendments are pending tomorrow before the final Senate floor vote on Friday. There is no guarantee the House would concur and the bill would make the finish line for adjournment.
The renewable energy bill, H.40, puts the state on track to generate and sell more renewable electricity in Vermont. The Shumlin administration says the bill is needed this year to avoid a potential spike in electric rates in 2017.
The bill includes statewide solar setbacks, local screening requirements and automatic party status for towns to participate in the Section 248 permit process.
Towns and residents have raised concerns that the statewide setbacks will still give municipalities little say in the energy project permitting process.
Developers and environmental advocates say municipal siting measures could have unintended consequences that could slow progress on reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell is sympathetic to the towns, and he moved to scuttle debate on the bill Thursday.
Campbell, D-Windsor, said he pushed an amendment to give municipalities more authority because he was disappointed that the Public Service Department did not present any changes to the state’s renewable energy siting policy.
“They failed to have anything in that bill that deals with the rights of towns and municipalities,” he said.
Observers are not surprised the Senate has yet to agree on a siting proposal for renewable energy.
The House spent weeks on the issue, but never finalized siting restrictions.
Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, P-Middletown Springs, who serves on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, wanted to change the energy siting process and worked on a bill in committee.
“We took a look at what seemed like simple fixes, but when we followed them along, they were not so simple anymore,” he said.
The Senate floor delay makes passage of the bill uncertain. Even if the House concurs with the substance of the bill, at least three-quarters of the House must vote to suspend the rules in order to take it up on Saturday, the day the Legislature is planning to adjourn.
House Republican leadership has not indicated they will seek to block the bill. House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said he is not sure the bill is a “must pass” this year. But he said he still needs to discuss it with his caucus.
If the bill doesn’t pass, rates could increase in 2017 by as much as 5 percent, utility executives say. That’s because Vermont’s current renewable energy incentive program, known as SPEED, expires. The program allows utilities to sell renewable energy credits out of state. If power companies can no longer sell the credits, rates will go up by 5 percent.
“It is important for this bill to pass this year to provide certainty in the market. Without this bill there is no certainty,” said Robert Dostis, director of government affairs for Green Mountain Power, the state’s largest utility.
Campbell blocks reporters from committee meeting
Campbell held a private meeting Thursday with the entire Senate Natural Resources Committee to discuss a siting proposal in his office. Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, legislative council, and Campbell’s staff were also present.
Campbell asked two reporters who attempted to attend the closed-door meeting to leave the room.
“There is no question that there is an open-door policy within the Statehouse, but that does not include the legislative leadership offices. This is a private office. It’s not a committee room,” Campbell said.
The Vermont Constitution says the doors of the Statehouse must be open, except when “welfare of the State may require them to be shut.”
John Bloomer, secretary of the Senate, oversees procedure in the Senate. He said the Vermont Constitution does not prohibit closed-door meeting unless there is a vote. Open meeting law does not apply to the Legislature, he said. It refers to the Vermont Constitution.
“Then you kind of work with what’s custom and tradition,” he said.
Lawmakers frequently meet in private with leadership or Gov. Peter Shumlin.
“You’re asking me if there is something that makes it right. I’m saying that there is nothing that makes it wrong,” Bloomer said.
Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, chair of the Natural Resources and Energy committee, said he can understand why the press wanted to cover the meeting, but he also understands that lawmakers want to discuss issues in private before going public.
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