Margaret Cheney, a member of the Public Service Board, gave legislators her take on a renewable energy siting bill Tuesday. Cheney described provisions in the bill as “unclear,” “possibly confusing,” “subjective” and “an exercise in red tape.”
The three-member Public Service Board, a quasi-judicial entity, is responsible for approving solar and wind projects. The board also sets utility rates and determines whether utility expansions are in the public good.
The bill, S.230, revamps the renewable energy siting process. Most notably, it gives towns and regions the option to certify municipal and regional energy plans with the state. The Public Service Board would give “substantial deference” to certified plans when deciding whether proposed renewable energy projects in affected towns and regions are in the public good.
The bill directs the Public Service Board to give more weight (unless “a preponderance of evidence” suggests otherwise) to existing town and regional plans. Municipalities that adopt energy plans in the next year would receive “substantial deference,” and those that don’t would receive “due consideration.”
The legislation is now in House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, chair the committee, says the bill has flaws and there might not be enough time left in the session to address the shortcomings.
Klein said there is “absolutely not” a need to pass the bill this year.
Cheney, a former vice chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committe, testified before a joint hearing with Klein’s committee and the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee Tuesday afternoon, in front of a standing-room-only crowd.
Cheney started by addressing the heart of the bill – which allows towns to write energy plans that identify appropriate and inappropriate locations for renewable-energy projects.
The word “inappropriate,” Cheney said, is subjective, and it’s unclear from the bill how that determination is made.
Cheney said the scheme creates confusion and doesn’t provide “consistency and predictability,” both important principles of the regulatory process.
But Cheney praised the bill’s approach to municipal planning for energy siting.
“The specificity is good … as opposed to general aspirations,” she said. “Our challenge has been when the language is too general… Generalities don’t help us.”
In a noteworthy Public Service Board decision earlier this year, the board rejected a permit application for a project that conflicted with the town of Bennington’s municipal plan. The board said that town plans can provide guidance on siting questions if they are specific enough.
Klein said there is no need to pass a renewable siting bill this year because the Public Service Board is already responding to complaints and will give more weight to town and regional plans – with or without S.230.
“I think the board is making great strides and great efforts to address the complaints lodged against it, and we’re beginning to see the fruits of that,” he said.
The bill would be vigorously debated on the House floor, and Klein said it’s not yet worthy of the exercise.
“I’m not interested in passing something that hasn’t been fully vetted or worked out,” Klein said. “I think the sense of the committee, from the comments given and the questions asked, is that 230 as a whole has a lot of problems and would need an awful lot of work to be passed in its current form.”
This is not the first time Klein has killed Senate renewable siting legislation. He blocked a similar proposal in the last biennium.
Under S.230, municipal plans would be reviewed by regional planning commissions, which would in turn submit regional plans to the Department of Public Service for certification. If the department determines that a regional plan doesn’t meet state energy goals, the planning commission can appeal the decision to a hearing officer, according to the bill.
But the bill, Cheney says, provides no mechanism for appeals of the department’s criteria for determining whether plans meet state energy goals.
The bill also creates a new position at the Public Service Board called a public assistance officer. According to S.230, this person would perform clerical duties in assisting members of the public with requests for documents, or with important dates, or with explanations of board procedure, or with other such matters.
The public assistance officer would also provide advice and assistance.
Cheney says the officer couldn’t act neutrally with respect to the proceedings while simultaneously proferring advice and assistance.
She also objected to a provision requiring inspections of solar projects ensuring that they meet aesthetic standards. Cheney said the mandate would be “costly, and in my opinion, unnecessary.”
Cheney said the board is already taking a greater interest in ensuring that developers meet aesthetic standards in their approvals.
Applying the requirement to all renewable energy projects, including rooftop and very small projects, she said “seems to be an exercise in red tape.”
Cheney also panned a requirement that project developers submit accounting for all greenhouse gases produced in the development of a renewable project – from the creation of raw materials, to fabrication, to transportation, to clearing land for the project and installing components. She said the accounting would be burdensome and expensive.
A mandate that developers establish funds to remove renewable-energy projects from the landscape once they’ve served their purpose is unnecessary, she said. Private entities typically remove obsolete infrastructure on their own, Cheney said.