The Vermont Legislature passed a major renewable energy bill late Friday despite last-minute anxiety over where new wind and solar projects should be built.
The Senate voted 22-6 to pass H.40, a renewable energy standard that requires utilities to buy and sell more renewable electricity beginning in 2017. The bill received final approval in the House on a voice vote late Friday and now goes to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s desk.
The bill incentivizes the build out of 400 megawatts of new renewable energy generation by 2032, according to the Shumlin administration. It also encourages utilities to reduce customers’ fossil fuel consumption through the use of heat pumps and electric cars.
Proponents say the bill puts the state on a track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, generate its own power supply and save on energy costs. Critics say the bill does little to address local concerns about how and where wind and solar projects are built.
After days of squabbling in the Senate over policy proposals that would change how energy projects are developed, the issue was resolved temporarily with a summer study committee that will lead to siting legislation next year.
The Senate’s version of the bill put in place a requirement that solar projects meet statewide solar setback limits and local screening measures. It also makes it easier for towns to participate in the Public Service Board permitting process by giving them automatic party status.
The bill also addresses a concern that electric rates could rise due to legal issues with Vermont’s current renewable energy incentive program, known as SPEED.
At the start of the session, the Shumlin administration told lawmakers electric rates could rise 6 percent statewide if no action was taken. That’s because SPEED allows Vermont utilities to sell renewable energy credits and count them toward a state goal in 2017. Because these credits could be “double counted,” the state of Connecticut has said they may not purchase them after 2017.
Vermont utilities sell about $50 million worth of credits, largely from wind and solar projects, to keep electric rates down. Losing the ability to sell them could increase electric rates. The renewable energy standard passed Friday would repeal SPEED, which would eliminate the risk of double counting, according to Connecticut regulators. Because Vermont would now have its own energy standards, utilities could not count them toward their Vermont goals and sell them on the REC market.
“That’s a risk for ratepayers that we want to take off the books,” said Darren Springer, deputy commissioner for the Department of Public Service, before the House vote Friday. “This bill resolves that issue.”
H.40 requires utilities to offer incentives to customers to reduce their fossil fuel consumption. The program is designed to replace gasoline fueled cars with electric vehicles and oil-fired furnaces with electric heat pumps. Weatherization would also count toward the requirements.
Utilities can petition regulators for a waiver from the regulations if they prove it would increase electric rates. There is also an annual reporting requirement on the rate impact of the program.
Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, was slow to move the bill through the Senate. He says he supports renewable energy development, but some developers have been irresponsible. He wanted towns to have more say in project siting.
Before the vote, Campbell said he would not support the bill without a strong siting provision, but he later voted for the bill and sent it over to the House.
“I could have killed it, but I’m not going to do that,” he said. “Sometimes it’s tough to be a leader and a statesman.”
The bill requires the Shumlin administration to report back on the impacts of renewable energy development on forest fragmentation, wildlife habitat and agricultural soils.
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