Last month, the Vermont Senate passed a bill that some members said was meant to send a message to the state Public Service Board that the utility regulators hadn’t paid close enough attention to the public.
Tuesday, one of the Public Service Board’s three members delivered a different message back: The Senate bill is full of flaws, board member Margaret Cheney told two House committees.
A former state representative who has served on the quasi-judicial Public Service Board since 2013, Cheney returned to the Statehouse on Tuesday to discuss the bill with her former colleagues. She acknowledged that the public is frustrated by the board’s complicated process, but she downplayed the depths of that frustration.
“There have been legitimate complaints about navigating and understanding the board process,” Cheney said, but added, “We are working to do a much better job with customer service.”
She explained that new rules will clarify the process for siting of small-scale energy projects. An updated website to be unveiled in the fall will give the public easier access to documents. And new staffing will make the board more consumer friendly, she said.
After the hearing, Cheney said a minority of solar and wind projects generate complaints. “We have thousands of cases that come before us every year,” she said. “In my experience, the vast majority of the projects we approve are either received positively or are virtually invisible.”
The complaints were the driving force behind the Senate bill. Reeling from a proliferation of solar projects, more than 100 Vermont municipalities have signed a petition calling for more say in where projects are located. Opponents of wind projects are pushing for a moratorium and new sound standards.
The Senate’s bill was designed to give local communities more influence in siting projects if they produce certified town plans that outline where renewable energy projects can go. For opponents of projects, the bill didn’t go far enough to protect local control. For renewable energy advocates, the bill would make siting cumbersome.
In the House, which is more friendly to renewable energy than the Senate, the bill may not survive at all.
Rep. Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier), chair of the House Natural Resources & Energy Committee, invited Cheney, who once served as vice chair of the panel, to speak Tuesday. Her testimony helped build his case that the bill needs work.
Afterward, Klein said his committee is trying to revise the Senate bill, but is “really struggling” to find a way to mesh local, regional and state energy needs. The committee might not be able to come up with a solution before the session ends early next month, he said. “There’s a 50-50 chance.”
Cheney took lawmakers through the bill section by section, commenting on problems the board has identified with the Senate’s revisions to the siting process.
Vague wording would make it difficult for the board to determine appropriate locations, Cheney said.
The bill would also establish a public outreach officer to help Vermonters navigate board rules. Cheney noted the bill calls for the person to supply “neutral” advice, but she said it would be difficult to offer useful advice about navigating the board process that’s entirely neutral.
For a salary of $50,000, the position requires someone who has technical expertise, but would also do clerical work, requiring an uncommon blend of skills and duties.
The bill also directs the Public Service Board to complete a long-delayed wind complaint case by October 1, setting new turbine sound standards in the process. Cheney said it’s inappropriate for lawmakers to interfere with a pending case. If legislators want the state to establish new sound standards, they should simply direct the board to do that, she said.
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