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Lawmakers discuss local control over renewable energy

MONTPELIER, Vt. – Lawmakers concerned by a growing revolt against wind and solar projects are considering ways to give locals more control over the decision-making process.

The Senate Energy Committee met Wednesday to examine the roles of the Public Service Board, regional planning commissions and municipalities regarding siting of renewable energy projects.

“We were hearing from communities who felt their efforts to participate in this process were difficult at best, and some felt they weren’t being heard at all,” said Sam Swanson, a member of the Governor’s Siting Taskforce.

Swanson is referring to the Section 248 process for siting energy projects. He said the process was never intended for the hundreds of applications the PSB reviews and approves. Instead, it was designed for large individual units like Vermont Yankee in Vernon, the now defunct nuclear plant which once accounted for more than 70 percent of Vermont’s electricity production.

According to an analysis by the Ethan Allen Institute, Vermont may need 100,000 acres of new solar installations to meet the state’s goal of reaching 90 percent renewable production by 2050 – a level of development never imagined by Section 248.

Lawmakers looking for a better approach to siting large amounts of land think regional planning commissions could play a role. For example, RPCs could work alongside municipalities and the PSB, potentially restoring balance to the process.

At least three RPCs are piloting a map program to assess where projects can be built in each region. The program aims to account for environmental, economic and functional viability.

Thomas Kennedy, executive director of the Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission, said new coordination among towns, RPCs and the PSB will require new funding.

“To make all this work, there’s going to have to be additional ongoing funding for municipalities and for some RPCs to do the planning for this,” Kennedy said to committee members.

Kennedy took issue with utilities asking selectboards for consensus on projects. “I’m not sure they are the best body to decide whether or not a project has merit,” he said.

At least 80 selectboards around the state have signed “The Rutland Resolution” asking state lawmakers to shift siting authority back to towns and away from the PSB.

Kennedy urged that any move toward increasing local control should be recognized by the PSB.

“If we go through all this planning, it is my hope that this is going to be … clear to the PSB that these plans will have a greater weight in the process,” he said. “(If) towns still aren’t being heard, it’s going to be very problematic. I think we are seeing that right now where there is a tremendous backlash to many solar projects.”

State Sen. Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden, questioned whether the PSB would respect more siting from the local level without a legislative requirement.

“It certainly would be helpful if a town had thought through where they might want to site solar … but I’m not sure that would guarantee the PSB would decide that’s the language you needed to have,” she said. “I’m very cautious about saying they need specific language as opposed to us telling them they must give deference to a town or regional plan.”

During his testimony, Swanson sympathized with municipalities.

“I’m sure everybody in this room at one point in their lives or another has faced something going on in their community that they felt was abusing local rules, regulation or their own interests, and tried to participate in it,” he said.

“It’s hard even to participate in something common like new gas stations, which have a well established process, or convenient stores, or whatever. In this case, you are introducing new technologies, and the processes are based in Montpelier. We need to have a better way.”

Swanson added that moving to a low-carbon future amounts to “a major shift in everything we do in our society,” and that the international effort to combat climate change ultimately falls to local communities that must accommodate renewables.

“I see (renewables) in lots of places and I applaud that. But I also recognize that’s causing some problems, and that’s what we’re wrestling with,” he said.