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Energy siting bill passes with stricter wind provisions

MONTPELIER – The energy siting bill S.230 is on its way to the House floor after a unanimous vote of support by the House Energy Committee on Thursday evening. With it are newly added wind provisions that would have retroactive impact on turbine projects applied for since April 15.

The bill now states that on or before Sept. 15, 2017 the Public Service Board “shall adopt” specific sound standards for industrial wind turbines. These standards, once adopted, would apply to any project application submitted since April 15.

“That provision is huge,” said state Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon. “It addresses in a substantial way the concerns of the people here. They may finally get relief.”

Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, echoed that sentiment.

“The standards that were in place are archaic,” he said about the current case-by-case policy of the PSB. “We really need to look towards more up-to-date and scientific studies.”

Rep. Marianna Gamache, R-Swanton, noted this would be especially great for her constituents. Seven 499-foot turbines are being proposed for Swanton’s Rocky Ridge. An application has not yet been submitted.

“That’s a huge difference. It affects the proposed project for Swanton,” she said. “It has not been applied for yet, so assuming this bill gets through all the hurdles with that component intact, it would be huge for the people of Swanton.”

Another policy adopted Thursday regarded party status at PSB hearings for towns adjacent to industrial wind turbines.

“The legislative body and planning commission of an adjacent municipality shall have the same right if the distance of the facility’s nearest component to the boundary of that adjacent municipality is 500 feet or ten times the nine height of the facility’s tallest component, whichever is greater,” reads an excerpt from the bill.

Another major provision that got modified was the “certification of energy compliance.” Compliance means that the town and Regional Planning Commissions plans are in sync with state energy policy goals. This has now been re-worded in the bill to become “determination of energy compliance.” There will be an appeals panel of three professionals with energy siting experience for towns and RPCs that complain they didn’t get a fair deal.

Some provisions taken out of the bill in the past week include the creation of a public assistance officer to assist citizens with all the hurdles and legalese of participating in the PSB process. Energy siting activist Annette Smith had previously criticized this role as expensive and ineffective in preparing laypersons to take on the lawyers hired by big developers.

Another provision recently taken out was to have life-cycle monitoring of the carbon footprints for each approved energy project. With the cost per kilowatt hour for wind and solar projects around 12 cents compared with around 7 cents for market power (according to Hardwick Electric Manager Mike Sullivan), the reduction in carbon output has often been cited as a primary purpose of the shift toward renewables.

State Rep. Robert Forguites, D-Springfield, who noted the dozen or so attendees wearing bright green vests signifying their support for addressing wind turbine noise, said the bill should provide some relief. He also acknowledged the Rutland Rebellion, in which more than 100 towns signed a petition for better energy siting laws in the state, which largely kick-started S.230.

State Rep. Mary Sullivan, D-Burlington, said getting the bill late from the Senate didn’t help. Voting on the bill was originally posted on the agenda for about a week ago.

“I always prefer to be a little less rushed,” she said. “We all spent as much time as we could to make it as good as we could.”

Next stop for the measure is the House floor. Committee chair Anthony Klein, D-East Montpelier, who is retiring, said it was very meaningful for him to see it move on.

“Like democracy, it isn’t perfect. It’s not always pretty. But it’s worked,” he said.