Members of the Vermont House approved a bill Tuesday that supporters say will give towns greater say in where renewable-energy projects are sited.
The House unanimously approved the bill, S.230, after critics complained the measure doesn’t afford towns enough of a say in the siting process.
The legislation gives towns authority to write and certify energy plans. Renewable energy developers must then abide by the town’s wishes unless “clear and convincing” evidence shows that a project sited elsewhere would benefit the state. Under S.230, the Public Service Board must afford towns with energy plans “substantial deference.”
The bill also directs the Public Service Board to devise standards regulating sound produced by wind-energy projects.
Only state-certified plans would be preferred by the Public Service Board, and some House reps worried that only those plans will get approved that carry out what the state would have required of towns in the first place.
“You get substantial deference … if you do what they want you to do,” said Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington. “That’s not substantial deference in my definition of the word. It doesn’t seem like substantial deference or any greater decision-making power for localities to me.”
Towns in her district, under the bill, would still not have the power to refuse altogether what Browning described as “industrial” renewable-energy projects.
Browning voted for the bill nevertheless, saying that it beats what’s currently in place.
Rep. Thomas Terenzini, R-Rutland, said the bill was “lip service, when it comes to solar siting in the state of Vermont.
“Substantial deference is not what allows [towns in opposition to current renewable-energy policies] to have the final say as to where solar siting projects should go in their own towns and municipalities,” Terenzi said.
The legislation is a recognition that the state needs to change its strategy as solar and wind projects become more ubiquitous. Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, chair of the House energy committee, said the bill is a natural consequence of the extraordinary success of renewable-energy development in Vermont.
The state’s renewable-energy efforts have worked better and more quickly “than policies the state sets on any level for any topic,” Klein said.
“Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves, and sometimes we need to make adjustments,” Klein said. “The bill represents such needed adjustments,” he said.
While he and his committee sympathize with concerns of those who feel they’re harmed by renewable-energy projects, but Klein considers the problem overblown.
“People feel they’ve been injured,” Klein said. “Well I ask you, what industry, what project, what development – what anything in this state, or in this world, has a requirement to satisfy 100 percent of the people within the area of a project being built? Has there ever been a store, a house, a mall … that every single resident in that area said, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful’?
“I’ve heard people say they’re uncomfortable, they’re hurting,” and both he and his committee want to aid them, Klein said. “But in the world of things … it’s not a lot of people. It’s not thousands of people, it’s not even hundreds of people, but it is people, and we care, and if we can do something about it we should do something about it, and we are doing it in this bill.”
Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Albany, said the legislation is “a good first step in towns having a greater voice in energy projects in communities, [and it gives] more power to communities to determine what’s in their best interest.”
The bill underwent significant revision after it passed the Senate last month.
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.
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.