MONTPELIER – A bill to give towns more say in the siting of renewable energy projects cleared the Senate Natural Resources Committee Friday afternoon just before a key deadline.
Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison, the chairman of the committee and the bill’s sponsor, said the bill, S.230, would actively engage regions and towns in the planning process for renewable energy. The committee voted unanimously to pass the bill.
Under the proposal, regional planning commissions would work with the Department of Public Service to create regional energy plans, Bray said. If the state is satisfied that a region’s energy plan would help Vermont meet its renewable energy goals, the state will certify that plan. Then a town could create a plan addressing its own needs and bring it to the regional planning commission, which would certify that town’s plan.
The Department of Public Service’s Comprehensive Energy Plan includes a goal of having 90 percent of Vermont’s energy come from renewable sources by 2050. Renewable sources includes wind, solar and biofuels.
Town plans would get “substantial consideration” in front of the Public Service Board. Currently, towns get due consideration, Bray said, so this represents a significant increase in the amount of say towns have in siting renewable energy projects.
The Public Service Board can still override a town, but only if there’s clear and convincing evidence that there’s “public good” in doing so.
“It’s a very high standard,” Bray said.
Bray said the rules needed an update because the landscape of energy is changing. Vermont is moving towards a model of distributed renewable generation – having thousands of smaller generation sites, instead of a few large ones.
“We have decades of change ahead,” Bray said, “and every step of that way includes land use.”
For Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, this bill is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t go nearly far enough to protect Vermonters who live near renewable energy projects, especially wind projects. He wants to see noise monitoring and rules on how far wind turbines have to be from houses in the final version of the bill.
“There’s not the courage in this building to make the changes that need to be made to protect Vermonters,” he said. There are a small number of Vermonters who have had to leave their homes or who have watched their property values plummet because of wind projects, but it’s a very real problem for those people.
Rodgers said he plans to bring floor amendments when the bill comes to the full Senate for a vote.
Watching the discussions prior to the vote were Penny Dubie, wife of former Lt. Gov Brian Dubie, and their neighbor, Sally Collopy. They live on Fairfield Pond, where large turbines have been proposed.
Penny Dubie said she wanted to see more noise protections in the bill.
She cited the dozens of noise complaints received by the existing Georgia Mountain wind project, and the lack of action taken to address them.
“That makes us feel like the state of Vermont isn’t protecting its citizens,” she said
Both Dubie and Collopy said they had concerns about what substantial deference means. Collopy said she’s heard conflicting comments.
“All of that language can be overridden by public good,” Dubie said.
Collopy said she was concerned that the bill wouldn’t make it all the way to the governor’s desk and become law.
If the Senate passes the bill, it will go to the House.
“If the House doesn’t destroy the bill completely, there are some good components,” she said.
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