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Energy siting compromise called likely as House set to vote

The House is slated to vote Tuesday afternoon on the energy siting bill, S.230, but without several provisions of the version the Senate passed last month.

The bill aims to give towns and regions greater say over where renewable energy projects are built.

Despite the differences between the House and Senate versions, prospects for the bill are good, said its lead sponsor, Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison. The bill likely will undergo further revision at a conference committee, he said.

“There’s enough common territory for me to be confident we’ll pass the bill, but there’s enough differences that I think we’ll want to make adjustments,” Bray said.

One notable difference between the current House and Senate versions, Bray said, resulted from a decision by the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy to delete funding that would have paid to train local officials to write appropriate energy plans.

The House bill also lacks a public assistance officer contemplated by the Senate, along with language meant to subsidize projects in preferred sites and provisions meant to preserve prime agricultural soil.

The bill briefly appeared before House members Friday, when they sent it to the Appropriations Committee for review. That committee unanimously approved it with no amendments Friday afternoon.

The House energy committee also had given it unanimous support after making several alterations.

“We had advocates on all sides of the issue in our committee room for weeks as we discussed this bill, and to get it out with such a strong vote and the gratitude of stakeholders meant a lot to us in terms of affirming the work we did to reach consensus,” said House Natural Resources and Energy Vice Chair Kesha Ram, D-Burlington.

Ram said she doesn’t expect any further amendments from House members.

The bill gives regional planning commissions authority to write energy plans for their areas, and in so doing gives regions and towns the ability to direct the Public Service Board where renewable energy projects should and should not go. This direction binds the board except when the general good of the state clearly and convincingly requires otherwise.

Regional energy plans would include analyses of thermal energy, electric and transportation energy, along with identification of areas suitable and unsuitable for developing new renewable energy projects.

Bray said the bill sets the bar quite high for developers who seek to overturn siting decisions in regional and municipal plans.

S.230 also directs the Public Service Board to develop standards for how much noise can come from wind energy generators.

Finally, the bill would create a five-person Public Service Board working group to recommend changes that would make the PSB process easier for citizens to participate in.

The working group would be made up of a member of the Public Service Board, the commissioner of public service, a judicial officer of the state, and a member each from the House and Senate belonging to the Joint Energy Committee.

The House Natural Resources and Energy Committee in recent weeks removed a number of provisions the bill contained when approved by the Senate.

In addition to the $300,000 for training local officials on writing energy plans, the committee jettisoned language pertaining to preferred sites for new solar projects. Also removed were provisions for a new position at the Public Service Board, called a public assistance officer, who would have helped members of the public navigate the PSB hearing process.

Committee members also cut a section that would have established a pilot project to test the feasibility of deploying greater numbers of solar panels over parking lots and other previously disturbed sites.

These cuts were intended to keep the heart of the bill while trimming all else that could interrupt its path through the House, Ram said.