MONTPELIER, Vt. – The Vermont Senate on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to a renewable energy bill aimed at giving towns more input on the siting of wind and solar projects.
After failing to resolve thorny issues ranging from town veto power to costs for ratepayers, the Vermont Senate voted 25-3 to advance S.230 to a final reading and consideration of amendments to be debated on Thursday.
The discussion on the Senate floor was a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism. Supporters expressed hope that the bill would quiet a rebellion by towns against poorly sited renewable energy projects, but some senators questioned why the body was voting to advance the bill without first resolving its problems.
On the issue of who should pay the $400,000 appropriated in S.230 for town and regional planning efforts, state Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, rejected placing the costs on utilities, and therefore on ratepayers.
“I just think it’s wrong for us to place them on the backs of ratepayers in the state of Vermont,” Mullin told colleagues in the chamber.
State Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said some group had to shoulder the costs since the Public Service Board was “suggesting that no source be provided,” a position that would leave communities unable to comply with the law. Ashe said his committee discussed making developers pay, but decided against it after determining it was hard to predict how many developers would submit projects to the PSB for approval.
In another issue delayed until further debate on Thursday, state Sen. Joseph Benning, R-Caledonia, asked what happens if a town’s identification of acceptable sites conflicts with determinations made by regional planning commissions.
Under the bill, the Public Service Department evaluates regional plans against state’s comprehensive energy plan, and regional planners evaluate municipal plans to align goals. But Benning said the notion behind S.230 seems to be that the planning process should flow from the ground up, meaning towns should tell regional planning commissions of their siting preferences, and in turn RPCs should relay that information to the Public Service Board.
“Under circumstances in which a municipality’s plan and a region’s plan that covers the municipality conflict, how would that conflict be resolved?” Benning asked.
State Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, answered that the bill provided no answer. He nevertheless expressed hope that such disagreements would resolve naturally through a reconciliation process.
“I don’t think the legislation envisions a planning process where an RPC would dictate to the municipality. It’s more of information flows up from the town to the regional planning commission,” Bray answered.
When Benning asked if that meant the town would essentially have veto power over the region’s decision, Bray neither affirmed nor denied.
“Honestly, I envision a respectful productive dialog between the parties, not parties dictating to one another,” Bray said.
The issues will likely be hotly debated on Thursday when the Senate considers a slew of amendments before the bill gets a final vote.
Enthusiasm for the bill came largely as a result of the preliminary vote, in which just three Senators opposed the bill.
“When you have that kind of support on the floor, I think it really sets us up for a great vote (on Thursday),” state Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, told Vermont Watchdog. “If you are really against this bill, you would have said no.”
Other senators are not so sure.
“We already know that the planning costs are going to be driving up the costs as a direct hit to the rate payer,” Mullin told Watchdog. “I don’t see anything in here that lowers the rates in Vermont.”
Bray said after the vote that he hopes to reach consensus on Thursday.
“As I acknowledged in my floor report, there are areas of disagreement,” Bray said.
Approving the bill with unresolved issues struck some observers as a violation of process.
“It’s surprising that the Senate would pass a bill that requires so much additional work at the third reading,” said Mark Whitworth, board president of Energize Vermont. “And you know I think the answers to the questions that were asked indicate that the bill is not really ready.”
John Brabant, spokesman for Vermonters for a Clean Environment, reiterated that sentiment.
“To bring it all out on the third reading when it’s do or die, well now you’ve got to do this but no one is sure where the truth lies, or the ramifications. It’s just bad process,” Brabant said.
Bray said he expects to address three issues in an amendment on Thursday. One regards an appeal process for when a RPC has its plan rejected by the PSB. The current process allows an RPC to resubmit an updated plan with justifications on decisions, and Bray’s amendment will propose that disputes be argued to a neutral hearing officer.
Another change Bray expects to offer is to have a grace period of up to one year for town and regional planners to properly update plans. In the meantime, the PSB would grant heightened status so that new projects won’t get approval until municipal plans are ready.
Bray also aims to address a controversy about wind turbine noise. Bray said average decibel counts should not take precedent over decibel peaks. While turbines might be quiet at some times of the day, spikes in volume can cause sleeplessness and general disturbance.
Annette Smith, director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said she doesn’t think the bill reverses the current top-down approach by the PSB. She added that municipal planning boards under the bill will continue to lack the know-how and financial resources to adequately represent their interests in the complex energy siting process.
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