A solar siting task force will deliver its recommendations to the legislature Friday, and an incomplete draft of that report shows heavy reliance on regional planning commissions as a means to greater local control.
Some critics of the state’s existing siting policies say the recommendations don’t fix anything substantial.
The recommendations do not offer localities the authority to refuse a project altogether. Lawmakers say that such power would prevent construction of needed energy infrastructure.
“That doesn’t help us,” energy gadfly Annette Smith, director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said of the recommendation for greater inclusion of regional planning commissions.
It’s an idea that’s been recommended, and rejected, before, she said.
“We’re supposed to write our plans so that, if we plan for renewables they tell us we have to have, we’ll get greater standing at the Public Service Board – why didn’t that happen before? Because it is the state mandating, and that’s not what we need,” Smith said.
Vermonters want renewable energy, Smith said, and legislators must trust that localities will site renewable energy projects without the heavy hand of state government requiring that they do so.
The solar siting task force recommendations give substantial control to local governments, but stop short of assigning them the power to veto a project, because given the choice, many localities would not host renewable projects, Department of Public Service Deputy Commissioner Jon Copans said.
“There was a time when there were probably lively conversations in communities about siting [electric] transmission wires and infrastructure” Copans said. “But you can’t opt out of siting poles and wires, or you’re never going to have electricity.”
The same holds true for renewable energy projects, Copans said. Nationally and internationally, energy increasingly gets generated nearer to where it’s consumed than before, he said. Modernizing Vermont’s energy infrastructure will bring new energy-generating structures into every community in Vermont, he said.
The task force gives more authority to municipalities to make decisions about where to locate power-generating facilities, Copans said.
“This is about local and regional planning commissions expressing a preference for where this type of development should be located,” he said.
The task force draft recommendations would provide resources and training to the state’s 11 regional planning commissions to enable them to plan for future energy structures. The draft recommendations would also give RPCs jurisdiction in state environmental proceedings for energy projects.
Towns would participate in the planning process, according to the draft recommendations.
The task force might also recommend regulatory and financial incentives to locate new energy-generating facilities in preferred locations. These locations include places that towns designate as ideal, and on sites that are disturbed already, such as landfills, parking lots and gravel pits.
The draft recommendations also encourage creation of several new customer assistance roles within the Public Service Board. These state functionaries would provide administrative support help members of the public communicate with the Public Service Board.
Recommendations include greater use of mediation as well. Smith panned this provision, as she did several others.
Mediation serves parties at an impasse, she said. The public would be better served with a less adversarial process at the outset, she said. Today, hearings on even minor aesthetic siting decisions fill rooms with attorneys, she said. For average citizens to meaningfully participate in the process, they need a far less formal forum where parties might seek to reach agreements before attorneys get involved, she said.
This and other problems would be resolved were the state to use Act 250 proceedings instead of Section 248 for environmental questions regarding renewable energy siting, Smith said. Section 248 gives less weight in the permitting process to aesthetics and other concerns, in service of what it defines as the public good. Act 250, the state’s land use law, has 10 criteria, including impacts on prime agricultural soils and aesthetics, to evaluate the environmental impact of a development.
Section 248 is appropriate for energy projects because they differ in at least one important respect from other development projects, said Vermont Public Interest Research Group director Paul Burns.
“There’s a distinction between a project that will generate absolutely necessary power for citizens of this state, and a project that will build another Wal-Mart,” he said.
The solar siting task force will present its final recommendations to the legislature on Friday.
The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee meets 9 a.m. Friday to consider the bill that is part of the solar siting task force’s recommendations.
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