The Senate is due to consider legislation this week that proponents say will give municipalities a say over where renewable energy projects get built.
The bill, S.230, was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Friday – the last hurdle before it goes to the floor.
The legislation would give towns the authority to say where they’d like to see future renewable energy projects. In localities that do so, such projects would have to be sited according to the town’s wishes unless “clear and convincing” evidence shows the good of the state requires a project elsewhere.
Under the bill, towns and regions would have to write energy development provisions into their regional and town plans in order to receive this special consideration by the Public Service Board when it considers permit applications for renewable energy. Municipalities that don’t would be treated no differently than they are today.
The local plans would have to locate projects so as to advance the state’s renewable energy development goals.
Critics say the bill would leave siting decisions vulnerable to political influence. Many claim the Department of Public Service is beholden to the governor’s office, and some have suggested that a requirement in the bill that local energy plans get department certification would subject land use to state politicians’ whims.
The legislation incorporates nearly everything the state’s Solar Siting Task Force recommended and goes significantly further in important ways, according to Sen. Chris Bray, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, which wrote it.
The bill would grant “substantial deference” to town plans regarding siting – language that mirrors Act 250, which critics of existing renewable energy policy sought to have applied to future projects.
The term means the Public Service Board must abide by municipal and regional plans’ siting prescriptions unless “clear and convincing” evidence shows that other considerations outweigh these plans in favor of the public good.
Some on the task force wanted the “substantial deference” language, but the members couldn’t all agree.
Bray, an Addison County Democrat, said his committee “made a huge step” in exceeding even the recommendations of the task force. “I don’t know what more we could offer to towns,” he said.
The Public Service Department would evaluate regional plans against criteria in the state’s comprehensive energy plan, and regional planning commissions would evaluate municipal plans to ensure they agree with the region’s, according to the bill.
Some lawmakers said that by requiring regional plans to win the Public Service Department’s certification as a threshold for being granted substantial deference, the bill fails to give localities real power.
Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex-Orleans, is dissatisfied with the legislation.
“My whole problem with this system is that we’re going to give communities the false idea it’s going to be really changed from now on, and they’re going to have some serious input into this siting. And I say they ain’t going to have it, and we shouldn’t be touting the idea we’re doing this great bill to help our local communities, because I think we’re leading them astray with false hope,” Starr said at Friday’s Senate Appropriations hearing.
Having local plans go before a state entity headed by a political appointee would make local governments subject, by extension, to the governor’s political pressure, Starr said.
“You don’t go get a fox to watch the fox that’s backing up into the chicken coop back on the farm,” Starr said.
The Department of Public Service has been testing the concept of such a planning process with three regional planning commissions, and the head of one of them said the certification process consists simply of meeting items on a checklist. Thomas Kennedy, executive director of Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission, said commissions like his do a similar certification process for towns on their municipal plans today.
“What we’re doing here is no different than what we’ve been doing since 1988 under (the land use law) Act 200,” Kennedy said at the Senate Appropriations hearing Friday. That law sought to encourage broad-based and coordinated planning regarding development.
The Appropriations Committee voted to approve $300,000 to train local and regional officers to draft energy provisions for municipal and regional plans that would meet state requirements.
The legislation would offer subsidies to developers who locate renewable energy projects in what it calls preferred sites. These sites include parking lots, the roofs of structures, brownfields, previously developed areas, landfills, quarries and gravel pits. Preferred sites also include locations that municipal plans designate as appropriate for renewable energy development.
The legislation creates a new position at the Public Service Board whose role would be to assist members of the public – without advocating on their behalf – in navigating the board’s hearing process.
Called a public assistance officer, this new board employee is meant to make public participation easier in board proceedings.
Participants have in the past complained of the difficulty involved in Public Service Board proceedings. This employee would provide information on how to file motions and testimony, the status of proceedings, and who can participate and in what way, among other things.
The bill would also put new requirements in place for developers. Renewable energy companies would be required to address, as part of their permit application, substantive written comments submitted by the public.
The bill directs developers to conduct a carbon emission analysis for the entire life cycle of projects that aren’t net metered, including pollution emitted through the manufacture of their components. Developers would also be required to set aside money for decommissioning projects once they have outlived their useful life span.
The state’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets would become a party to any renewable energy application and would be required to participate for projects on prime agricultural soil. Affected regional and local planning commissions would also become party to proceedings if they choose.
The bill also directs the Public Service Board to issue an order by Sept. 1 in its work regarding the development of standards for sound levels emitted by renewable energy developments.
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