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Vermont’s energy siting struggle hits crescendo

MONTPELIER, Vt. – What started as a letter from Rutland regarding a lack of local control over renewable energy siting has culminated in an 86-town strong “Vermont energy rebellion.”

On Wednesday, more than 100 protesters gathered at the Statehouse to demand local control for energy siting.

Leading the demonstration were state Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans; Karen Horn, policy director for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns; and Don Chioffi, a member of the Rutland Selectboard. Together they argued the energy project siting process as it now stands oversteps the will of ratepayers.

“I would like to acknowledge those here today whose homes and lives have been sacrificed by our state’s energy policy, those of you who have been encroached upon and bullied by energy developers, and those of you who have lost not only property values but the health of your families to industrial wind plants. The process that we use to site energy in Vermont is broken and it’s long past time to fix it,” Rodgers said, opening the event.

According to Rodgers, renewable energy developers, with rubber-stamp support from the Public Service Board, have been given unrestrained power over land use in Vermont to the detriment of cities, towns and the environment, adding that the process had become “anti-environmental and anti-democratic.”

His two-part solution was also the largest applause line of the day: “First, I propose that we ban the development of industrial wind in Vermont. … Second, I propose that we require land use decisions related to energy generation to go through Act 250.”

To that end, Rodgers is sponsoring S 210 and a slew of of other bills to ban industrial wind and subject the Public Service Board’s energy development certification process to stipulations found in Vermont’s strict land use and development law.

Other community leaders, including Chioffi, offered comments about the problem.

“You may as well throw selectboards and planning boards out the window if you are going to operate the state this way. They are being treated as if they are nonexistent and useless,” Choiffi told Vermont Watchdog. “… There has never been a solar projected rejected by this Public Service Board – there’s the proof in the pudding.”

Mark Whitworth, board member of Energize Vermont, a pro-renewable energy group, attended the event to protest the manner in which renewable energy projects are being implemented.

“They’re industrializing wildlife habitat, they are fragmenting forests,” Whitworth said. “They are developing our ridgelines, which is going to result in a loss of flood resiliency, and they’re converting farm land for meager energy production – so we are jeopardizing our food security. We think that these guys are just worsening the very problems that they claim they are helping us to avoid.”

Vermonters from across the state traveled to the Statehouse to have their voices heard as well.

“There aren’t any constraints on where they put them up or how big they are,” said Rachael Carr, of St. Albans. “If they don’t get some legislation to put some restrictions on these projects, it’s going to be too late.”

Her young son, Alex Carr, added an imaginative twist on the problem: “I’m here to protect the state from these huge monsters,” he said. “People think they are good, but they are not.”

Giselle Chevallay, a Newark resident dressed up as a displaced Vermont bear, said, “We want to help make sure we are more careful about our siting choices, whether it’s solar, wind, nuclear, hydro or anything.”

Given such urgency and backing by 86 towns, Rutland’s 2014 letter seems almost prophetic: “We are attempting, through this resolution, to form a coalition of Vermont communities which will support reasonable legislation to restore local community input to the regulatory process when addressing the issue of solar citing in our state.”

Whitworth explained what it means for a town to be part of the rebellion.

“These towns have either signed onto the Rutland resolution or they’ve adopted town plans which have explicit language regarding energy citing or certain energy technology,” Whitworth said, adding that his town of Newark has a town plan that says industrial wind turbines are inappropriate.

Currently, energy projects are exempt from Act 250 requirements. These requirements include adhering to regional municipal plans not unlike those of Newark. Rodgers’ bills attempt to make energy development subject to the same requirements other commercial developers face.

The plan is certain to hit resistance, largely because of the money involved. Chioffi said public money, including federal subsidies of 30 percent and state subsidies of about 8 percent, is what drives these projects. He argues that a 40 percent up-front return is also fueling the green energy rush.

“The best kept secret in the world is that these are really, really big cash cows,” he said. “There’s a lot of money to be made in these things. I’ve always been told if you ever want to get to the bottom of any argument on this kind of stuff, follow the money.”

Whitworth said the state’s renewable portfolio standards – which require every municipality to periodically increase its percentage of renewable energy sources – is another driving force. “It really lit a fire under this,” Whitworth said.

He added that while there are no current calls to freeze or repeal Vermont’s RPS, he thinks if legislators don’t respond to the pushback from communities, that will change. At least four of 29 states with such standards have halted or repealed them.

When asked about the status of Vermont’s RPS, Rodgers expressed concern about the economics of renewable energy. “There are a huge number of manufacture and installation jobs with solar today – I think it’s like 16,000 jobs,” he said. “The problem is, after the construction, we have basically set up a pipeline of our cash out of state because most of the owners of the big installations are out-of-state people or corporations.

“So it’s basically taking the tax credits out of state and the ratepayer money out of state. If we were building more on Vermonter’s homes and businesses, the tax credits and savings would stay more in Vermont” Rodgers said.